"Left all alone, I'm with the one I most fear," Adrian Borland sang on "I Can't Escape Myself," the first and best song on The Sound's 1980 debut album Jeopardy, and as conveyed in the 2016 Adrian Borland documentary Walking in the Opposite Direction -- which just became available to stream on-demand this year -- that line was more than your typical goth posturing. Adrian was truly his own worst enemy, and he battled serious mental health issues and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for decades before ultimately taking his own life in 1999. His health issues were at least part of the reason that Adrian never gained the popularity that he truly deserved, but as his father Bob Borland said in Walking in the Opposite Direction, even if The Sound or any of Adrian's other projects had hit it big, "I'm not sure that Adrian could've handled it."
The documentary traces Adrian's career from his days fronting the punk band The Outsiders in the late '70s to fronting the post-punk band The Sound in the '80s to his solo career in the late '80s and '90s, with which he dabbled in jangle pop, folk, alternative rock, psychedelic rock, and more. If you're a fan of any of Adrian's bands, I highly recommend watching the documentary (which you can rent for $5.50 for 72 hours at Vimeo; trailer below), and if you're new to his music (or just would like to read about it), read on for a little primer on Adrian Borland, a natural-born songwriter who really deserves to be better-known.
Adrian's first "real" band was The Outsiders (though around that same time, he apparently had a band with the late Tim Smith of Cardiacs that lasted for like two shows), and The Outsiders rivaled just about any of the great early punk bands. Their first album, 1977's Calling on Youth -- recorded mostly by Adrian's father in their home and released on their own Raw Edge label -- wasn't quite there yet, but the potential is overwhelming. Rippers like the title track and "Hit and Run" had all the speed and raw energy you'd expect from '77 punk, and even that early on, you can hear the power and distinctiveness in Adrian's voice. That's really one of the major things that would set The Sound apart in the increasingly crowded post-punk genre, and that makes any Adrian Borland song hit you in the gut, even when it's not his finest work. He just had one of those voices that stops you in your tracks every time he opened his mouth to sing.
The rippers were fine examples of early punk, but Calling On Youth also had stuff like the haunting acoustic jangle of "Start Over" and the ballad "Walking Through A Storm" that hinted at the music Adrian would make much later on in his career. It's not exactly the most cohesive album, but it's a solid teaser of the many sides of Adrian Borland's music that would get perfected later on. The Outsiders' second and final album, 1978's Close Up, was much more cohesive, and also a pretty major leap from the debut. It was done in a real studio, and it's one of the true classic albums of '70s punk. Like a lot of punk albums from that era, it opens with its best song -- the catchy, anthemic "Vital Hours" -- but the rest of the 11-song album wasn't too shabby either, and it still sounds urgent and timeless today.
The Outsiders broke up in 1979, and Adrian went to form a few other projects. He and Outsiders bassist Graham Bailey formed the gothy minimal synth duo Second Layer, who released one great album (1981's World of Rubber) and a couple cool EPs/singles during their short run. He also formed the even shorter-lived The Witch Trials, who were fronted by the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra (and also included Morgan Fisher of Mott the Hoople), and who released one four-song EP that finds the middle ground between theater, horror films, industrial, and political commentary (it's wild to hear 1981's "The Tazer" in the context of 2020's protests against police brutality). And most significantly, he formed The Sound, also including Graham Bailey on bass as well as drummer Michael Dudley and keyboardist Belinda Marshall (who was also dating Adrian at the time). Their debut album, 1980's Jeopardy, is among the finest post-punk records ever recorded, and it's both confusing and criminal that it's so overlooked today.
Jeopardy is a gloomy, skeletal post-punk album that's frequently compared to Joy Division, but it's really so much more than that and it's too unique to live in Joy Division's shadow. It's kind of somewhere between a catchier Joy Division and rawer, punkier Cure, but even that undersells it. One listen to "I Can't Escape Myself" is all it takes to hear how special The Sound really were. The song is in a constant state of nervous tension -- the perfect musical backdrop to the inner demons that inspired the lyrics -- and when Adrian finally erupts for the "I-aaaaayeee" on the titular line, it's like the earth shakes beneath you. The Sound was truly post-punk in that Adrian brought over all that punk energy from The Outsiders, and it really came through when he let himself belt it. (And The Sound were still pretty much a punk band when they first formed, as heard on their three-song debut 1979 EP Physical World and their scrapped 1979 album Propaganda, which was released in 1999.)
As with The Outsiders' Close Up, the best song on Jeopardy is the first song, but it's full of other great moments, like the punk-ish "Heartland" and "Words Fail Me," the super catchy "Heyday" (which was released as a single), the glistening title track, the brooding album closer "Desire," and much more. The album got a perfect score from NME, Sounds, and Melody Maker upon its release, and it's not hard to hear why it was praised so highly at the time. (It is hard to figure out how it was praised that highly yet feels so obscure today, though.) This was genuinely groundbreaking music in 1980, and even today, it sounds refreshing. Especially with yet another post-punk revival happening at the moment, Jeopardy feels like an album that could come out right now and win plenty of people over.
After the well-received Jeopardy, The Sound's label Korova (which was also home to Echo & the Bunnymen, who The Sound also opened for at the time) gave them a bigger budget for their sophomore album, 1981's From the Lions Mouth, and keyboardist Belinda Marshall was replaced by former Cardiacs member Colvin "Max" Mayers. Max brought a fuller, new wavier style to The Sound, which -- paired with the clearer production -- resulted in an all-around more accessible album than Jeopardy. I'm kinda partial to the bare-bones sound of Jeopardy, but From the Lions Mouth -- which was once again met with rave reviews -- is an overall stronger record. There's no single song as show-stopping as "I Can't Escape Myself" but it's a more consistent album with potential hit after potential hit. Jeopardy was built to be a cult classic, but From the Lions Mouth really sounds like it could've made The Sound as big as the Bunnymen, The Cure or even U2. On opener "Winning," Adrian rivals Robert Smith at his most desperate, while the driving goth rock of "Skeletons" gave the New Order singles from that same year a run for their money. Those are just two of the many highlights -- this album seriously does not let up.
For their third album, The Sound moved up to Korova's parent label WEA, and as legend has it, the label gave them an even bigger budget and was really wanting them to make something even more accessible than From the Lions Mouth (in the documentary, Duran Duran is frequently brought up as an example of what the label wanted The Sound to sound like). Adrian wasn't having it, and he took that budget and came out with 1982's All Fall Down, which was apparently a blatant attempt to make something anti-commercial. The label wasn't happy and they dropped the band, and apparently the album didn't get such great reviews either, but it really isn't the total misstep that it's often made out to be. It's darker than From the Lions Mouth and certainly nothing like Duran Duran, but it's still structured and accessible and just a great gothy post-punk record. Its brooding, opening title track is the weirdest it gets, and if you want to hear The Sound at their gothiest, that's a great place to start. The rest of the record is classic The Sound, and pretty on par with either of their first two LPs.
Again, I maintain that All Fall Down is not a misstep, but there was an undeniable feeling that The Sound had something to "come back" from, given WEA dropping them and the lukewarm reviews, and they did just that with 1984's Shock of Daylight EP. It was the tightest, most confident, and most energized that The Sound had ever sounded. It had the punk power of Jeopardy, the bigger and more accessible sound of From the Lions Mouth, and some of the most immediate songs in the band's catalog ("Golden Soldiers," "Counting the Days"). It's just a brief six songs, but it's among the band's finest work and is as essential as any of their full-lengths. It also set the stage for what would become The Sound's only real-time live album, 1985's essential In the Hothouse.
The Sound were a fantastic live band from the start; while some gloomy post-punk bands were known for giving the cold shoulder to the audience on stage, The Sound rocked the fuck out. "Regardless of what was happening [in his personal life], he went on stage and became a different person," said a member of Adrian's solo band the Citizens in Walking in the Opposite Direction. He battled so many demons and his lyrics could be highly introverted, but on stage he was a magnetic performer who always played to the people in the cheap seats. In the Hothouse and videos from the band's mid '80s era capture this perfectly.
1985 also brought a new full-length studio album, Heads and Hearts, and unfortunately, this was around the time Adrian's mental health started to take a big hit. One more album came after that (1987's Thunder Up), and The Sound ended up calling it quits the following year. The last two albums are good, as almost everything Adrian touched was, but you get the sense that the band kind of knew they were falling apart, and the untamed urgency of the earlier records isn't quite there.
ADRIAN BORLAND & THE CITIZENS
Around the same time as The Sound's demise, Adrian played guitar (under the pseudonym Joachim Piment) for the experimental rock band Honolulu Mountain Daffodils, he did some production work (including on Felt's 1989 album Me and a Monkey on the Moon), and then he began his solo career as Adrian Borland & the Citizens with 1989's Alexandria. It marked a fairly major departure from The Sound and went into brighter jangle pop and alternative rock territory, both of which suited Adrian's songwriting style just fine. As ever, when he opened his mouth to sing, you felt it. Alexandria is a little more lighthearted on the surface than The Sound, but Adrian's distinct style makes it more than that. It's joyful on the surface, but haunted at its core. It's an album that couldn't have come from anyone else.
Adrian's solo career continued into the '90s, first with the even more joyous (and polished) 1992 album Brittle Heaven, and then with the more ethereal, dream pop-leaning Beautiful Ammunition (1994), the folkier Cinematic (1995), and the little-bit-of-everything 5:00 AM (1997). It's all good and all very worth hearing, but perhaps the most stunning album he made in the '90s was the one that was cut short when he took his own life, Harmony and Destruction. He was working on it in 1999 and it found him diving a little deeper into psychedelic rock than he ever really had before, and he had to have known it'd be the last thing he ever did. Apparently he felt like his medication was hindering his performance in the studio and he stopped taking it, despite his bandmates and producer telling him otherwise, and ultimately Adrian decided it was time for him to leave us, before the album was done. Thankfully, he had done vocals for all 14 songs on the album and his bandmates and producer were able to finish it, and it came out posthumously as Harmony and Destruction (The Unfinished Journey) in 2002. From the jammy psychedelia of "Forever From Here" to the melancholic folk of "Startime," it covers so much musical ground, and it features some of the most powerful material in Adrian's rich catalog. The song that'll really stop you in your tracks, though, is the hidden track, "Death Of A Star." "How do you feel when a star dies?" Adrian asks in the lyrics, and maybe he wasn't talking about himself, but it's hard to hear it any other way.
You can really spend a lifetime digging into Adrian's work (I can't even claim to have heard every single thing he's released, and more stuff keeps coming out -- 2019 saw another posthumous release, Lovefield), and once you get sucked into his world, every new thing you hear by him starts to hit immediately. Maybe those mid '90s solo albums aren't as essential for casual fans as The Sound's classic early '80s material, but once you get deep into his work, you just can't stop exploring, and his catalog is almost always rewarding. It's that voice. As soon as you hear it, even when it's a song you had never heard before, it feels comfortingly familiar. Adrian was the kind of talent you only get a few times in each generation. We were lucky to have him.
The Walking in the Opposite Direction documentary features interviews with Adrian's family members, bandmates, producers, and significant others, and it really does a great job of showing what a fascinating and troubled life Adrian lived. It's full of fantastic live footage and all kinds of intriguing insight into Adrian's music and personal life. Interviewees describe some of Adrian's scariest episodes, but the documentary is full of fond memories as well. It's clear that the people who were closest to him thought so highly of Adrian as an artist, and that music was truly so important to him. "His music was more important to him than his health," his father said. You can rent the film on Vimeo and watch the trailer here:
Listen below or subscribe to a playlist with highlights from all across Adrian's career: