90125 was powerful.
In 1983, metal was doing its best to claim the throne of rock, asserting that no other form was worth calling rock. Punk had run its course, having failed in the fight. It was still around, but it had clearly lost its momentum. New wave was peaking, with synth sounds. In colleges, REM was the new darling of the day, and knowing them was proof of your coolness. On top was the revitalized Michael Jackson, just coming into his own. Into that, Yes, with their magnificently mixed arrangement of guitar and synth, along with their complex human drums, created a sound that created a place between and apart from all those other forms.
I was 17 back then, reading Glen Cook's Dread Empire series, wondering at Robotech, dealing with all my newly emerging teenage emotions, and finding an echo in "Owner of a Lonely Heart." With such strong feelings, no gentle, Oprah style delicate listening would do. No, hard guitars and raging drums expressed my pains and anxieties far better. I wasn't alone. "Owner of a Lonely Heart" rocketed up the charts.
90125 didn't stop after one song. I wouldn't be here writing this retrospective if that were the case. For one song after another, ambivalent lyrics, both hopeful and resigned, knowing and naive, overpowering and supportive, emerge from every tune. These lyrics do not pander to their audience, they acknowledge their audience. They say, "Your fight is real, and we've been there, and your passions are real."
What strikes me most about this album, on this re-listening, are all the emotions that come through the tunes. These songs are not filled with mono-emotions, but with mixed emotions. Anger, hope, fear, frustration, delight, love, frustration, insecurity. All these emotions emerge, supporting us as the flawed human beings that we are. In this powerful music, we males had a space for weakness and heartache, failure and disappointment, endearment and affection.
At the end, I must call this an optimistic album, perhaps the last great optimistic album of the rock age, before cynicism became the hallmark of 80's culture. In the midst of all the turmoil present on the songs, men older than us told us that we would make it through, succeed, transition, adapt, and continue on. We weren't going to come out of this turmoil unchanged, nor unmarred, but we would come out of it strong.