The One after the Big One: Foreigner, AGENT PROVOCATEUR
Among the arena rock monsters who did the Godzilla stomp across the U.S. in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Foreigner had two formidable powers. Guitarist Mick Jones, whose gift for melody and cool riffs powered songs that remain on radio playlists to this day, was complemented by singer Lou Gramm, whose voice alone could level a small metropolitan area. They rang up platinum pounders like “Hot Blooded,” “Head Games,” and “Long, Long Way from Home” before hitting the motherlode with 1981’s Mutt Lange-produced 4, a Number One album that yielded classics like “Urgent” and “Juke Box Hero,” along with the most sultry of power ballads, “Waiting for a Girl Like You.”
It was the latter smash (ten weeks at Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100, mostly stuck behind Olivia Newton-John’s vixen-gym-rat anthem, “Physical”) that seemed to knock the band off its axis a bit, as evinced by the propensity of keyboard-driven material on the band’s follow-up album, 1984’s AGENT PROVOCATEUR. “Down on Love,” “That Was Yesterday,” “A Love in Vain” and “Two Different Worlds” provide the record’s foundation, and that foundation sounds like the stuff Rick Wakeman keeps in his basement. No fewer than six synthesizer players are credited on the album, putting a freshly buffed sheen on both the high and low end dynamics of the songs, and giving Gramm a plush bed of sound on which to … well, be Lou Gramm. “That Was Yesterday” and “Down on Love,” in particular, are great displays of both his force and restraint.
Of course, AGENT PROVOCATEUR features Foreigner’s only Number One hit (no Livvy songs to hold it back), “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Jones’ meditation on longing and growing older builds from slow, simmering verses into the glorious chorus and quite possibly Gramm’s finest vocal performance. The song is often called a power ballad, but it actually bears the marks of a great gospel song—a yearning for faith housed in verses that reflect and a refrain that reaches to the heavens. The presence of an actual gospel choir (the New Jersey Mass Choir of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, with Jennifer Holliday) just tips its hand.
AGENT PROVOCATEUR was the penultimate release for this lineup of the band; after 1987’s underwhelming INSIDE INFORMATION, Gramm bolted for a solo career, which burned bright for a bit before fizzling. Jones, bassist Rick Wills and drummer Dennis Elliott carried on for a single record with singer Johnny Edwards (the underrated and under-selling UNUSUAL HEAT). Jones and Gramm have reunited on several occasions, but never quite recaptured the chemistry that sustained the band for its first albums. In many ways, AGENT PROVOCATEUR was Foreigner’s last big hurrah, and its best songs have helped sustain the band’s legacy for more than three decades.
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