THE CARS -- Heartbeat City

The Cars' music isn't exactly what you'd call avant-garde, but it's a perfect example of forward-looking contemporary pop a calculatedly exquisite balance of crowd-pleasing rock and the latest experiments in studio sound. The simplicity of the group's five-man-band, not-too-heavy-on-the- synthesizers arrangements precludes the sluggish pretentiousness of such British art-rock bands as Yes and early Genesis, yet the Cars are distinctly arty. Lead singer and songwriter Ric Ocasek's crypto-poetic lyrics and his painter's approach to producing (the layering of sound, the taste for use-'em-once studio gimmicks) give the group's arena-rock foundation an audaciously aesthetic edge. Call it high-propane pointillism.

Heartbeat City, the Cars' fifth album, is, for the most part, a satisfying blend of high tech and low-key. This is probably the band's first album that's not dominated by uptempo, made-for-radio rockers, but by slower, sparer numbers that are rendered lush and almost romantic by a wash of floating background vocals la 10cc's "I'm Not in Love." "Drive" has a beautiful melody picked out on Steve Reich-like percussion over moody electric keyboards and a laconic bass-and-drum line, while Ocasek's lead vocal is set off by electronically treated backup voices. "Heartbeat City" a portrait of some kind of urban Oz or, perhaps, the landscape of the body also sails on an ocean of breathy aahs. "Why Can't I Have You" is easily the LP's most affecting song, because Ocasek drops his usually chilly persona and, against a gorgeous whispered chorus, sings with plaintive desperation.

"You Might Think" and "It's Not the Night" are more standard Cars fare: charging rockers with sullen vocals. The best uptempo cut is "Magic," a juicy morsel of fun-food pop. The track opens with what sounds like a spaceship beeping, then crashes into heavy-metal power chords and typical Cars keyboards, while tickling the ears with sonic tricks and gizmos (a silly tongue-clicking noise illustrates the line about "high shoes with the cleats clicking"). But it's "Looking for Love" that offers a classic demonstration of the assembly-line arrangements that explain the name of this band: Three bass thumps and two drumbeats spread out over the basic eight bars, some kind of synthesizer tattoo percolates underneath, a shimmering three-note guitar line ascends and descends over that, and short vocal phrases provide a clipped narration. All these ingredients are clearly laid out and kept carefully separated in the mix until the chorus locks them into an irresistible, revved-up hook.

The sound of Heartbeat City is undeniably exhilarating, though it's much trickier to tell if the songs are supposed to add up to anything more than a bunch of catchy tunes. Because Ocasek is a smart (not to be confused with intellectual) guy, it's nice to think so, and there are enough references to suggest a subnarrative that intermingles love and drugs. The key seems to be "Heartbeat City," which closes the album. "Heartbeat city/Never stops," sings Ocasek, and "Nothing really/Gets us down/As long as Jacki's/Back in town." Is Jacki a code name for a tasty chemical that makes the heart race, or is it just love? As the song ends, Ocasek trails off, saying, "It's my life...," leaving Lou Reed fans to finish the sentence with "...and it's my wife," a reference to "Heroin."

Once you start looking, these druggy clues pop up everywhere. "Hello Again" isn't just a cheerful rock band giving its fans a Mister Rogers-style greeting; it's an attempt to communicate with a friend who's too high to see straight ("You left the scene/Without a trace/One hand on the ground/One hand in space"). Getting the shakes, coming down, taking a fall, walking the edge and "rushing on the run" figure in other songs. And "Shooting for You," a number written for the album but not included, has a verse that goes, "I'm ready when you want to start/To talk about it heart to heart."

The hedonism inherent in rock & roll promotes getting wasted as a teenage national pastime, with little regard for the related tragedies that occur every year. It's hard to talk about burnouts and drug-related deaths without sounding like a Sunday-school teacher or a public-service announcement. But if Heartbeat City really is a sort of understated story about trying to win a lover back from a dangerous habit, that's pretty cool.

But it's hard to tell, and that in a nutshell is the Cars' - or rather Ric Ocasek's - most serious failing. What's the use of making ambitious rock if nobody's quite sure what you're saying? Musically, the Cars are as talented and technically sophisticated as any band around, yet Ocasek's songs don't have the depth or the content the art of such wizardly peers as Thomas Dolby and Laurie Anderson. You could say it's artless art-rock, but you could also say it's arty without being art. The shame of it is that you know Ocasek's got it in him to write more than first-draft poetry. The Cars do a good job of advancing artistically while maintaining a mass audience, but they pay a price for having it both ways.

Rolling Stone, April 26, 1984