Track By Track: Swing Out Sister: It's Better To Travel
2022 marks the 35th anniversary of Swing Out Sister's debut album It's Better To Travel. One of the best sophistopop albums of the 1980s, It's Better To Travel lives up to its' name. You'll feel like you're doing a lot of traveling when you're listening to this album, taking trips to fantastic new destinations. Since real travel is still iffy for a lot of people in the chaos of 2022, I want to do a bit of time travel with my latest Track By Track article. Join me as we go back to 1987 for our next musical adventure.
It's Better To Travel starts out with the rollicking and inspiring song Breakout.
I first hear this song in the early years of my 80s fandom. It was the late 90s, and Breakout was featured on an 80s compilation CD I purchased. I was knocked back by the sheer energy and inspiration of the song. The late 90s was a very dark time for me, and that darkness was reflected in a lot of what was popular on the radio and in pop culture in general. Breakout was a song that spoke to the part of me that sought maturity, respect, and something beyond the chores of school and scout meetings, something beyond the fracturing of my family after my dad's passing in April of 1995.
The idea of inspiration is a theme that runs through the music video as well as the band play fashion designers who are in the doldrums at first, but then have a sudden burst of inspiration. Now they're having fun with their work as the playing they do influence their latest fashions. It all leads to a fashion show with the group's lead singer, and designer in this video, Corinne Drewery wowing the audience with her unique couture. I saw this music video on VH1 in the late 90s, and I loved it from the start. It was one of the examples of how I saw a light in 80s pop culture that wasn't there in the 90s.
Interestingly, around the time I heard Swing Out Sister's Breakout for the first time, Foo Fighters released their own song called Breakout. As I'm not a fan of 90s alternative rock music of any kind, I couldn't understand why people in my age bracket were eager to listen to Foo Fighters' Breakout, but had never heard of Swing Out Sister's Breakout. I wasn't able to properly explain at the time why I liked Swing Out Sister's Breakout, but over two decades later, I finally can. To my ears, Swing Out Sister's song is an exhortation to live the best life you can.
I still love Breakout to this day. I actually sang this song in a karaoke video in the early days of the coronavrius pandemic because it was a hopeful song. We're now over two years into it, and while things are still up-and-down, I've been able to start getting out more. The concept of Breakout also applies to my writing. Writing is what allowed me to start gradually breaking out of the darkness that was my 90s and 00s. With every article and interview, I gradually got the darkness out of my spirit, and ended up viewing the world and my life in a new light. Songs like Breakout have paved the way to a happier day for me.
The second track on It's Better To Travel is Twilight World.
This song is definitely travel-oriented. From the music video, featuring footage of airports and Swing Out Sister in various locales around the world, to the lyrics, which detail how travel can be both exciting and dangerous, it's a song with a great sense of veracity to it. When you're listening to Twilight World, you can easily imagine yourself among the jet-setters, even if you're in your used car or riding on a bus.
I can relate to this song because my family would often take trips to Walt Disney World, and many of these flights were either early morning to get down to Florida, or in the night to get back to New York. In other words, twilight of one kind of another was part of our travels. The flights were always interesting, but not in a good way. There would often be family tensions, especially on the 00s trips, but when things got too heated, I would turn on my CD player and try to drown out the pain. It sometimes worked, and it sometimes didn't, but I had the music.
I don't do much traveling for fun now. The only time I do is when I go to the Chiller Theatre convention twice a year. Personally, I would like to see Corinne Drewery appear at a future Chiller. Many British performers, whether they're musicians or actors, have appeared at Chiller over the years, and I would love to meet Corinne in person to thank her for the impact that Swing Out Sister has had on me. Maybe she'll appear there in a few years or so.
It's Better To Travel's third track is called After Hours.
The somewhat minimalist lyrics of this song reflect the loneliness one might feel when they're out on the town. It showcases an evening when you're without your buddies to down a few beers with, and without a companion to take home for a late night romp. You're basically a one-person show, and the only other person in the room is your bartender. A rather sad picture, isn't it?
Over the years, many YouTube users have created music videos for their favorite movies by setting them to popular songs. I wonder if anybody has done a YouTube music video setting Swing Out Sister's After Hours to clips from Martin Scorsese's 1985 classic After Hours. The words of the song go very well with the chaos that Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) must be feeling in that movie.
When I say minimalist in regards to this song's lyrics, I mean that it starts with the chorus, has one verse, returns to the chorus once more, and ends up with the words "after hours" repeated twice. That minimalism makes me think of how one can feel minimal when they feel like they're on their own. I occasionally have those feelings as well, but then I look at the contacts list on my phone, and the many Facebook friends I have, and I realize that I have lots of people I can reach out to for guidance...Maybe not after hours, necessarily, but definitely during the day at least.
The fourth track on It's Better To Travel is Blue Mood.
This song was actually released two years before Swing Out Sister's debut album came out, and it sounds different from most of the other songs on the album. It's more synth-pop than sophisto-pop, and that's rather interesting for Swing Out Sister. Going back to listen to the album again for this article, I found myself taken aback by the sound. I don't mean that in a bad way as I think they still would've sounded great if they trended in this direction. It just sounds like a bit of an outlier...At least instrumentally.
Lyrically, though, the lyrics from this 1985 song fit very well with the lyrical conceits of the other songs on this album. The song, to my ears, sounds like it's telling someone to start looking on the upside of things. However, it's a gentle message. It's not someone saying, "Stop being sad right now". That never works with people. It's like telling someone, "Don't think of a white elephant". The first thing that will come to mind for them is a white elephant. It's human nature to do the opposite of what you're told.
I can relate to that on a personal level. In addition to not knowing how to deal with my autism spectrum disorder until I was in my late 20s, I also dealt with depression and feelings of loneliness. My late mother lacked sympathy for me. When I would talk about how sad I felt about my life, she thought I was just being whiny and looking for attention. She would even mock me in the same way schoolyard bullies did. That didn't make me feel better. It just made me feel like I couldn't even rely on my mother for understanding.
Only after her passing would I be able to know more people who understood what I was up against, and who felt genuine sympathy for me. From relatives to friends I've made online to many talents I've interviewed, I've been able to develop a support network that boosts my spirits in dark times. Whenever I feel in a blue mood that's negative, I have friends who can point my direction towards the blue skies of hope. That's a wonderful feeling.
Getting back to It's Better To Travel, though, we now come to the album's fifth track, Surrender.
Instrumentally, it's another example of how Swing Out Sister excelled in the genre of sophisto-pop. Lyrically, however, to my ears, Surrender is rather vicious. It's a scathing putdown of a former lover whose betrayal left an impact, and who Corinne hopes will suffer themselves someday. It's an excellent example of how lush instrumentation can disguise venomous words.
Listening to this song, I found myself thinking of how, as a teenager, I had a girlfriend. While I did love her, I entered into the relationship for the wrong reasons. My reason for entering the relationship was because I wanted to be seen as normal in spite of my autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. I can see now that there's no such thing as "normal", but I was 14 going on 15, and I didn't know any better.
I broke up with my girlfriend in 2000 when I found out she had designs on my best friend. I would carry anger at that idea for several years, but eventually I realized it was wrong to be upset with her. It took me years to realize that I had no idea what a romantic relationship was supposedly to entail. I was going by what movies and TV and music were telling me was part of everyday life.
As I've mentioned before, I now identify as aromantic. There are plenty of people I love, but it's not a romantic love. There's familial love, platonic love, love for humanity as a whole...I have all those things. I could've had the anger exhibited in Surrender for all my life, but then I realized that venom doesn't expand life, but shorten it. It's best to look at the world in a loving manner, and that's what I try to do.
Returning to It's Better To Travel, the album's sixth track is Fooled By A Smile.
This is another song about how troubled relationships can be. The conceit, basically, is that appearances can be deceiving. You think you can tell what someone close to you is thinking, and you think they're having positive thoughts about you. However, they may actually think you're a jerk or a lowlife or worse. You won't be able to tell that until it's too later, though, as people have a tendency to disguise their disdain with a smile.
The music video for this song is an example of how bitter lyrics can be coated with something sweet to make it easier to enjoy. In the video, the band is having fun in California, playing dress-up, riding bikes, enjoying the general atmosphere. In the video, they're having a lot of fun. However, I can imagine the concept of the video being something like, "Don't go by the images. Things are rough".
I myself have been fooled by a smile on many occasions. Whether it's customers at my retail job sarcastically complimenting me on my bagging, or my late mother smiling broadly when I was pouring my heart out about my feelings of depression and loneliness, I often get confused when people smile at me. There are some places, though, where I can tell that the smiles are genuine. From a convention like Chiller Theatre to time spent with my uncle Eddie and his family, I'm not fooled by the smiles there because I know they're genuine.
Returning to Swing Out Sister, the seventh track on It's Better To Travel is called Communion.
To my ears, this song reminds me a bit of Somewhere from West Side Story. In Somewhere, two star-crossed lovers sing of a place away from the darkness of the streets where gang warfare is seemingly neverending. There's a similar sentiment in this song as Corinne sings of searching for a place of peace and love in a chaotic world. The "communion" of this song is not a religious one. It's the communion of human connection in dark times.
The world is a place that's always being put through the wringer. Every year of every decade brings new challenges and new dangers. The need for connection with others is ever present. We all need to talk to others, to assuage their hopes and fears, to comfort and support them, to offer a sympathetic ear or a bit of humor. The New 20s have certainly been a challenging time for finding communion with others, but we have to keep hoping. After all, what's the alternative?
Speaking for myself, that wide network of friends I have are always willing to spare some time to talk to me. Whether they're teachers from my school years, friends made in childhood, coworkers, friends made on websites I've frequented over the years, or talents I've interviewed, there's lots of people who I can commune with. Thirty years ago, I felt like I didn't have many friends. Thirty years later, I have lots of wonderful friends, and I'm continuing to make new ones today.
As to Swing Out Sister, the eighth track on It's Better To Travel is It's Not Enough.
This song is the saying, "Sorry doesn't cut it", in song form. It's basically Corinne telling someone that it will take more than an apology to make a situation better. This is a situation that will need more than a big display of emotion to make things better. The question is, though, what can make a bigger impact than an apology? In times when words fail, what do you do next?
I had to deal with that occasionally in my younger years. For example, there was one time in elementary school where a fellow student told me to whisper something in a teacher's ear. I repeated what the student said, and the teacher informed the principal, who informed my parents in turn. It was one of the only times I saw my dad get as angry at me as my mom did. They told me that "sorry doesn't cut it", and they washed my mouth out with soap.
The thing is, though, that this was my first time hearing the vulgarity the student told me to whisper in the teacher's ear. I was 9 going on 10. I hadn't seen any R-rated movies yet. I hadn't even seen any PG-13 movies. I didn't know what I was saying at all, but my parents thought that I did. I was truly sorry, even though I didn't know at the time why they were offended, but my parents were very disappointed in me. If only I could've explained myself better at the time...
The final track on It's Better To Travel is entitled Theme (From 'It's Better To Travel').
It's an instrumental track that, as mentioned near the beginning of this review, sounds like taking a trip to a new locale. There are all sorts of sounds in the song that offer a sense of mystery and wonder. Where are we going? Will we be safe? Will it be fun? Will it be dangerous? There are so many possibilities that come to mind with this song. I can imagine this song being played both when an airplane takes off and when it lands.
Traveling is something I don't do much of...For fun, that is. I mean, I travel to and from work, and my evening walks can be considered traveling around the neighborhood, but for fun, the only place I really travel is Chiller Theatre, and maybe the occasional trip to the movies. However, upon revisiting this album, I could easily imagine playing this song before my ride picks me up for my next fun trip. There's always something exciting to look forward to when you're traveling. Sometimes you need to make the excitement yourself, but it's still there.
With that, my Track-By-Track look at Swing Out Sister's It's Better To Travel draws to a close. I hope you all enjoyed the album. What are your favorite tracks from It's Better To Travel? Do you have any fond memories associated with songs from the album? Finally, what 80s albums celebrating either 35th or 40th anniversaries would you like to see me cover next?
I'll talk to you soon. Be well, my dear friends.