Josh Rouse: Love In The Modern Age

Josh Rouse
Love In The Modern Age
(Yep Roc)
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

“I wanted to explore new sounds and write with a fresh backdrop,” Josh Rouse explains in the background material to his 12th studio album. If “new sounds” means what was passing for contemporary adult pop in the mid-’80s, he’s successful. Think bands like Prefab Sprout, China Crisis, Aztec Camera, a-ha, Howard Jones and The Dream Academy and you’re close to the vibe Rouse is aiming for on this retro inspired ten track set. 

Rouse had his biggest commercial impact back in 2003 on the album simply titled 1972, an affectionately realized collection informed by the radio-ready music of that year. He moves forward a decade or so for the deceptively, perhaps sarcastically, named Love in the Modern Age.

There’s nothing modern about it. Guitars aren’t entirely forsaken for dated keyboards, although the six strings are mixed so low they are usually inaudible. Rouse leisurely talks/croons above a heavily layered sterile bed of soft synth pop, drums that sound programmed (they aren’t always yet they’re played with the enthusiasm of a click track) and occasional hooks, all without breaking a sweat.

The singer-songwriter joins with like-minded Daniel Tashian; together they play, co-write and co-produce this period piece. Kudos for authentically replicating a sound most who lived through that often antiseptic time in pop were happy to leave in the rear-view mirror. Frustratingly, the songs get so caught up in what is surely a loving tribute to this era, they eventually blend into a mushy whole. This isn’t helped by Rouse’s nonchalant, some may say bland, voice and inconspicuous tunes about finding, losing and balancing romance that dissipate into the ethers soon after they end.

A few melodies like the opening “Salton Sea,” “Businessman,” and the title track — not surprisingly all early singles — float by and occasionally click, bolstered by a cradle of easy flowing guitars, synths and steady rhythms. But others like “Ordinary People, Ordinary Lives” are little more than pleasant and instantly forgettable. Rouse says he was influenced by Leonard Cohen’s similar synth approach on his later work, but naming an original composition “I’m You’re Man” is pushing it. And Rouse is no Cohen.   

With recording spaced out over six months and tracks created through overdubbing, the lack of the band’s spark is palpable and obvious. At its best, Love in the Modern Age, with its clean, mostly sparse, unruffled production is a perfect soundtrack for your local coffee shop. It’s inoffensive, unobtrusive, innocuous and difficult to hate. But it’s also hard to get excited about as these songs quietly fade into the background like the music of the generally forgotten acts of the ’80s Rouse tries to emulate.