The Human League outpaces the sum of its hits and misses

The British band stops at House of Blues on May 11.
Photo: Perou / Courtesy

In 1981, Sheffield, England, synth-pop group The Human League released its third LP Dare, with its monster hit “Don’t You Want Me.” For many, the band’s story ends there. That’s understandable; Dare casts a long shadow. (“Don’t You” is the last song on this classic LP, following a run of killer tracks: “Love Action (I Believe in Love),” “The Sound of the Crowd” and more.) But it diminishes a band that, even in the free fall following that commercial peak, still managed to produce meaningful and even influential work. Here’s some help familiarizing you with it prior to the group’s May 11 House of Blues show.

Early years: The League’s first two LPs, 1979’s Reproduction and 1980’s Travelogue, are stark, vaguely industrial affairs with cold electronic instrumentation and lyric sheets that could have been penned by giant robots. (Take, for example, “Empire State Human,” about a “bored kid” growing 14 stories tall.) Thing is, though, this stuff is great. If you like Ladytron or LCD Soundsystem, you’ll hear their antecedents, clear as day, in “Being Boiled” and “The Black Hit of Space.”

Dare, Fascination, Hysteria and Crash: The years after Dare found the band sometimes struggling (1984’s Hysteria took two years to record and produced only one big single, the politicized rocker “The Lebanon”), and sometimes succeeding despite itself (the band felt no connection to its 1986 hit ballad “Human,” written and produced by The Time’s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, or its host LP Crash; even now, the making of that record is a touchy spot for the members). Yet this is when the band shone most brightly, producing hits like “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” and “Mirror Man,” and brilliant misses like “The Sign” and “Money.”

1990 and beyond: Only a handful of the League’s later songs stand out, notably 1990’s “Heart Like a Wheel” and 1994’s sugar-sweet “Tell Me When.” But when the band puts all these songs in a live set, you don’t hear the ups-and-downs. You only hear the genius of the songs and the enthusiastic sound of the crowd.

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