Released in 1987, Man of Colours is generally considered to be Icehouse’s best album, and was their most commercially successful. I found it most interesting that not a single cut from this one was included in Great Southern Land, generally taken to be a “best of” compilation.
I think one reason is that one of Iva Davies’ major strengths is the intensity he brings to his singing, which is only here sporadically. “Crazy,” which was one of the hits from this collection, gets it. It takes a while, but it reaches that high point. “Electric Blue,” the second hit and much touted probably because it was cowritten with John Oates of Hall and Oates, is just a weak song – there’s none of the edge that made Icehouse worth a listen, and the end result on that one is a fairly lackluster teenybopper dance song. It seems to have infected much of the rest of the album. “My Obsession,” which follows, gets a little closer to the kind of compressed energy that seems to inhabit Davies’ music at its best, but it’s nowhere near the pitiless irony of “Hey Little Girl” or raw pain of “I Don’t Believe Anymore.” The title track reveals another side of Davies, who puts a yearning quality into his voice that I haven’t heard him manage anywhere else – it’s an immensely appealing song, and pretty much negates the faults of “Electric Blue.”
Man of Colours is a relatively low-key album, and perhaps that affected my first impressions. A song such as “Kingdom,” for example, is nice enough, but somehow a little flat – almost too polished, too smooth, without the edge that is Davies at his best, or the acidic quality that would be fully justified by the lyrics, and I think examples like that colored my perception of the entire album. “Nothing Too Serious” tries hard, but seems somehow almost forced – this one should be a show-stopper, and just doesn’t do it. “Sunrise,” the last cut except for the two bonus mixes of “Crazy,” is Davies get back in form.
And maybe the next listen-through will remove my last reservations. I suspect it will — it’s a collection that grows on you. Perhaps Icehouse’s great strength and its great weakness is that Icehouse is, purely and simply, Davies, who was its creator, remains its motivating force and its mainstay, and it rides on his talent and energy. (In fact, Davies recorded Icehouse’s second album, Primitive Man, almost completely solo.) It helps that Davies is not only an accomplished and versatile musician, but also a remarkable singer, displaying a wide flexibility in approach and command of a dizzying range of moods and styles. Man of Colours makes it on that, although I still feel it’s hampered by occasionally lackluster songwriting. It’s an uneven effort, but the “good” cuts – “Crazy,” “My Obsession,” “Man of Colours,” “Sunrise,” “Anybody’s War,” are worth it. This is not to imply that the rest are bad in any sense – they’re just not at the top of Icehouse’s capabilities.
(Regular Records/Chrysalis Records, 1987)