First some background history: Gary Numan has long been one of the most underrated artists, only recently has his profile been given a boost from having been named as a major influence by artists such as Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. Most people are often only vaguely familiar with the name and probably associate Gary Numan only with his early hits … and frequently class him as a 'synth pop pioneer'. The latter is only partly accurate, though – he's never been 100% electronic, always relying on guitars and/or bass, drums even violin for a while.
Some may only know his song "Cars", a chart success on three occasions in three different decades (originally in 1979, remixes in the 80s and 90s). Frankly, though, it is one of the weakest songs in his enormous back catalogue – and that's not just me saying so. Gary Numan himself has voiced similar reservations, which is also why he no longer necessarily includes it in his live sets. Other well-known early tracks from the late 70s include "Are friends electric?" and "Down in the park". He enjoyed a period of enormous success within just a few years (with 1980's "Telekon" album being the absolute stand-out work quality-wise, which was on a level he never matched again until the 1990s).
But then began Gary Numan's long, slow decline, not so much in quality (at least not straight away) but in commercial success. He increasingly failed to get into the charts. It didn't help that at the time he had become a pet hate in the mass media (for reasons that have never really been comprehensible). Stylistically he moved into a funkier direction, with slapped bass guitar becoming a major stylistic element for several years, the addition of female backing singers and saxophone … altogether gradually sounding more "American" and far removed from any British synth pop. But together with declining commercial success came a slip in quality control. Successive albums sounded more and more random and non-Gary-Numan. Again, it's not only me saying so: he's voiced much harsher verdicts about his mid-career years. He even said he'd "lost the plot" by 1992.
Then, in 1994, came what I regard as the greatest artistic come-back and turn-around of all time: his next album "Sacrifice
", which he made almost entirely on his own, shed everything that had gone wrong before and was 100% pure Gary Numan again, especially on the song-writing front. Also the sound now was a lot darker than ever before.
And the next step, 1997's "Exile" took him to even darker levels – and I still have to hear anything that is this dark, from start to finish (especially the finish! – the title track is spine-chilling to the core). The style of this period was sometimes dubbed "Goth noire" – and indeed it's much darker, and much more genuinely dark (rather than for easy superficial effect) than most music classed as "gothic". One of the album's tracks is even named "Dark". Another one, "Absolution", was repeatedly quoted by Gary Numan himself as the best song he's ever written. Although I would say there are a number of tracks on this album that could equally compete for that title (the powerful opener "Dominion Day", the icy title track, the fast-moving "Dead Heaven" or the chilling "The Angel Wars" amongst them).
"Exile" can be seen as a concept album of sorts – on an almost brutally "anti-theist" theme, that is … not "satanic" in any way, just very, very anti-God. That degree of a theme running through an entire album is quite unusual for Numan, but worked very well. His only other album that can be called single-topic was 1979's "Replicas", the only science-fiction-related album he ever made, in fact – yet it pigeonholed him incorrectly for many years as "robotic", "space rock" and such nonsense, on a par with rubbish like taking "Cars" as a representative Numan track (it is not - he's only written perhaps three or four songs that are vaguely similar, and all are on the same album "The Pleasure Principle").
Since "Exile", Gary Numan has moved on to a more industrial-like sound which is still dark and of good quality, but it's no longer so uniquely Gary Numan, rather showing more influence from outside again, esp. Nine Inch Nails, also partly brought about by collaborations e.g. with Sulpher (an extreme British industrial outfit, which is also very very dark, but different to Gary Numan's own type of dark). Recent collaborations with Ade Fenton have yielded some stunning material. For sure, Gary Numan remains a relentlessly innovative artist to be reckoned with. Hopefully, this will be recognized more too – I'm sick and tired of people still equating Numan with "Cars" in total ignorance of all his good stuff. It must be even more frustrating for Gary Numan himself, of course. But you can't blame him. He's done his bit to make his better stuff heard – and some. But overcoming popular clichés, no matter how wrong they are, is not something easily achieved …