Album Review: Michael Oakley – Introspect

neon synthwave album cover art of michael oakley introspect review by iron skullet

Introspect is the type of recording you could expect to hear in the 1980s, which is an ironically rare thing to be able to say about a synthwave-related release in 2019. Not only are there plenty of authentic ‘80s influences in the music itself — far more so than in most of its contemporaries — but there’s a much deeper and more culturally significant similarity as well: Oakley is willing to try something different on every song.

To appreciate what Oakley has achieved with Introspect, it’s worth going back and visiting excellent pop albums of the 1980s — particularly those that found success in the US and UK during the era — such as The Pointer Sisters’ Break Out, A-ha’s Hunting High and Low, or the best songs of the decade from the late, great Robert Palmer.

There’s an immense diversity of music on those artists’ albums, from upbeat dancefloor tracks to radio-friendly rock tunes and sentimental, soulful break-up songs. Even though each of those artists had very different backgrounds, they allowed their music to gravitate toward a central idea while mingling freely with seemingly unrelated genres. The result was a wonderful melting pot of ideas, and more than anything else, that genre-defying mix of cultures and creative approaches is the hallmark of 1980s pop music.

The best recordings of the era were deceptively deep and varied, and they offered something special on every track. Yet despite synthwave’s love affair with the idea of the ‘80s, that aspect of diverse songwriting has been almost entirely absent from synthwave throughout its history.

Until Introspect.

Oakley’s rich knowledge of music genres is on full display from the first notes to the last, and his ability to capture the essence of those genres and spin them into his own vision of popwave music is nothing short of sublime. This remains true even when the approach of a particular song moves beyond a listener’s realm of interest. In other words, even if a person dislikes the particular style of a song on Introspect, it’s impossible to say it isn’t well made.  

The high variety and quality of songwriting on Introspect demands that each of its entries be acknowledged and taken on its own terms. No two pieces are alike, and consequently, no two can be described together. 

“Left Behind” establishes this pattern of diversity early, and its unmistakable Euro and Italo disco influences immediately bring to mind mid-‘80s classics like Silent Circle’s “Touch in the Night” or Radiorama’s “Aliens.” Although the rhythm section is the most conspicuously borrowed aspect from another era, it’s accented by smaller touches like the Modern Talking-esque “ah-ah-ah” backing vocals that add indispensable color and life to the song’s retro feel.

Like all great synthwave-related recordings, “Left Behind” isn’t strictly an homage to the past. Oakley delivers his music with a warmer and silkier production style married with modern effects that places it firmly within the late 2010s. Despite its embrace of the past, Introspect could never be mistaken for an actual recording from the 1980s. Similarly, Oakley’s vocals have a significantly less robotic feel to them than most synthpop and Euro disco artists of the past, giving “Left Behind” a more inviting tone for contemporary audiences. 

The album’s most striking creation arrives on the brilliant “Control,” in which immaculate production carries a deeply satisfying rhythm section accented by reverb-heavy, raindrop-like effects reminiscent of those on The Midnight’s Nocturnal. When Oakley’s pitch-perfect vocals soar over the rolling percussion of the chorus, the result is guaranteed to stick in a listener’s memory and linger well after the final notes have faded.

“Control” is one of the most accessible pieces on the recording, and it was smartly released as an advance single for the album. The strength of the song even helped it land a high spot on the Best Popwave Songs of 2018.  

An equally notable — but for very different reasons — effort takes the form of “Now I’m Alive,” a heartfelt ballad performed with the queen of synthwave, Dana Jean Phoenix. This is no ballad in a loose sense of the term, however. There are plenty of downtempo, emotional tracks populating synthwave’s landscape, but none of them are like this.

“Now I’m Alive” is a full-blown, perms-waving-in-the-wind, staring-deeply-into-each-other’s-eyes-while-crooning-out-life-lessons type of ballad. This is “We’ve Got Tonight” on synthwave steroids, gushing tender emotion until listeners are forced to reach for a box of tissues or a barf bucket, whichever is closest.

It’s an undeniably well-made song packed with exceptional vocal performances from both Oakley and DJP, and it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. That said, enjoyment of the piece necessarily hinges on an ability to survive the stomach-churning kitsch of a true ‘80s ballad. 

Sentimentality is not unique to “Now I’m Alive” however, as Oakley embraces it throughout Introspect. Fortunately, it often arrives in more palatable quantities. 

For example, “Crystal Ships” is a gorgeous piece that reflects ‘80s soft rock and adult contemporary, almost like the retro synth equivalent of Chris de Burgh. Beneath the songwriting lies the distinctive touch of archetypal dreamwave synths, allowing “Crystal Ships” to settle in comfortably alongside recent popwave creations from Timecop1983 and The Midnight. Once again, the blend of past and present is handled with care and precision, making the track highly nostalgic without being a simple retread.

Related: Iron Skullet’s Popwave playlist, featuring Michael Oakley, The Midnight, FM-84, and similar artists

In a different way, the chorus on “Rain” invokes a certain type of uplifting rhythm and vocal delivery that could only be visually represented by a person spinning on one foot with outstretched arms. If John Farnham made a retro synth track in 2019, it might very well be “Rain,” and like ‘80s creations from Farnham himself, it’s easy to forgive the slightly over-the-top emotional tone thanks to earnest songwriting and excellent execution. 

Two final entries bring the recording to a satisfying conclusion. “Push it to the Limit” extends the tradition of legendary ‘80s soundtrack cheese like “Mighty Wings” and of course, “Scarface (Push it to the Limit),” though Oakley puts his own spin on the style with a lively concoction that would make Kenny Loggins proud.

Never willing to be predictable, Oakley shifts from the buoyancy of “Push it to Limit” to a low-key ballad to close out the recording on “American Dream.” In contrast with “Now I’m Alive,” the final track is a modest effort that is effectively one man and a piano. In the spirit of Billy Joel and Elton John, Oakley leans into the stripped down instrumentation to show off his singing chops in perhaps his most impressive vocal effort on the recording. “American Dream” is a suitably short and bittersweet entry, and it serves as the perfect closer to the album. 

Taken in its entirety, Introspect represents a tremendous creative effort, one that could only be pulled off by a singer-songwriter with substantial skill and experience as well as a love for a diverse range of music. It might be tempting to pass off the recording as a patchwork of unrelated ideas, except once again, the inclusion of a wide variety of styles on a single album defines the creative landscape of ‘80s pop more than any single instrument or songwriting approach.

In this way, Michael Oakley’s Introspect is one of the most authentically retro recordings to emerge in synthwave’s entire history, and the impeccable production and vocal performances seal it as a figure on the Mount Rushmore of vocal-driven albums within the broader genre. 

The most significant (and if you enjoy ballads, only) caveat is the album length, which barely crests 30 minutes. That includes the attractive but fundamentally intro-only title track. That said, it delivers far more quality content and more moments worth revisiting than similarly short popwave offerings like The Midnight’s Kids, and it somehow feels fitting that the album matches the length of the ‘80s recordings it emulates.

Introspect is unique even among popwave albums, though it stands in particularly stark contrast against the generic outrun imitations that currently saturate the broader genre. Introspect is a clear-headed and deliberate attempt to break the synthwave mold and offer a different perspective on ‘80s nostalgia. Ironically, Oakley does this by directly embracing the decade’s pop music. The result succeeds on nearly every level, ballads and all, and there’s very little that can take away from the overall excellence of Michael Oakley’s Introspect.

Rating: 98 / 100 (Outstanding)

Songwriting: 10
Execution: 10
Production: 10
Song Variety: 10
Consistency: 9
Memorability: 10
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)

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