Soviet’s Ghosts is the ideal 80s retrosynth album: It’s first and foremost a well-written pop record, which happens to feature vintage keyboards and methods used to create a bright and heartfelt OMD-infused, Italo Disco-inspired masterpiece.
Soviet channels the Italo stylings of Ryan Paris, the catchiness of Vince Clarke-era Depeche Mode and subsequent Clarke-centered Erasure, and virtually any upbeat, emotionally charged number on a John Hughes soundtrack without any of it being too on-the-nose. This is all to say that there are no gimmicks on Ghosts.
On Ghosts, it’s easy to get drawn into the expansive and finely crafted synthesizer landscapes that add color to the catchy and evocative verses and choruses resting atop impeccable rhythms. It’s no problem to feel empowered by the arpeggiated synth bass and related arrangements that adorn each track. Also, the solos and leads are all something for a listener to invest herself in wholeheartedly.
But it’s all an incomplete measure without the excellent vocals of Keith Ruggiero, who along with Chris Otchy and Chaz Windus makes up Soviet. The combination of the masterful instrumentation with his earnest, New Wave-inspired pipes is something to experience.
The record’s 10 cuts are all important and worthy of anyone’s time. There’s no filler. Given that the average song length is four minutes, it means that the album is, by design, ripe for multiple listens. That economy is important, because it can be very difficult for an artist to kill his or her darlings and leave some tracks behind. For example, there are several moments where I got the impression that this could have been the album M83 would have made if Anthony Gonzalez had let go of his Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness aspirations.
That said, there are a few songs that stand out if I try really hard to isolate them.
The title track is the most Italo-pop of the cuts on Ghosts. It’s a bouncy number with crystalline synthesizers and tender strings, and a chorus that could have been written by Italo powerhouse producer Pierluigi Giombini. Despite its title, this song has a feeling of resolution and of the act of moving onward toward some interesting, perhaps even bright, future. There’s no unfinished business here.
“Subdivision,” while darker and a bit more laid-back than some of the other songs, is still eminently danceable. It’s got a catchy Euro Disco sound and hypnotic, ethereal vocals that move around the mix like specters. All the spacey, metaphysical qualities it displays are kept in check by the confident backbeat.
The rhythm and synth riff on “Psychic City” sound like a marriage between the better angels of Holy Ghost! and OMD. There is the whimsical, Rube Goldberg accompaniment of DFA’s Ghost! and the engaging synth work of the British synthpop pioneers. Ruggiero’s vocals are doubled into a disembodied onslaught of emotion. It’s a great time, this song.
The album’s closer, “Symmetric Connection,” is a sort-of ode to the expansive and cinematic qualities of M83, but Soviet keeps it tempered until it ends rather abruptly. I consider this song a standout because it’ll leave the listener wishing it were at least 7 times the one minute and 46 seconds it uses to serve as the finish to this extraordinary album.
On an album without any apparent accidents, the short shelf-life of “Symmetric” seems to serve to reinforce the repeat-value of Ghosts. If the album stopped at the penultimate “Psychic,” we’d all want to instantly revisit the album. But capping it with “Symmetric” makes that prospect that much more necessary.
The artists who create work based on 80s influences all occupy their own subgenres of the movement, and each serve their own important purpose, but Soviet is something special. Ruggiero isn’t a corporate pop artist who tosses in an arpeggiator as a throwaway nod, nor does he blindly hold on tight to some ridiculous dogma with rigid strictures defining what it means to “truly be 80s.” He just writes great songs using the 80s palette, and he does it really well.
Yes, go check out the album wherever you can stream it, but I challenge you to actually buy it. We need Soviet in this world for a long time.
Ghosts is out now digitally on Rosso Corsa, on CD and vinyl via Sounds Red Records (see below), and on Burger Records’ tapes.