Three of Hart’s Part 2:
a deep dive into the first three albums from 2019 Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Corey Hart continues with 1985’s Boy in the Box.
Forget being friendly and apologetic. The most Canadian of all Canadian stereotypes (and the one we perpetuate the most) is our tenacity; we are a society of self-styled underdogs. Whether on the sports field or in the entertainment arena, it’s Us against the World® and it’s usually the World® that wins. But, by golly, we put up an almighty fight. We give it our all and hope that we don’t embarrass ourselves too much. It’s part of our innate, low-key humblebrag mentality that plays into the idea that Canadians are not arrogant and boastful by nature, which in turn gives us permission to celebrate and cheer for our cultural heroes (and ourselves) when we achieve excellence on the world stage.
There could be worse things than imagining ourselves a people of perseverance and determination, and I posit that there’s no better unofficial anthem for Canadian stick-to-itiveness than “Never Surrender”, the chart-topping and award-winning anchor to Boy in the Box, Corey Hart’s sophomore record from 1985. Cold and dark nights? Hopeful optimism in the face of uncertainty and oppression? An 1980s standard-issue sax solo (courtesy of band member Andy Hamilton)? Check, check, and check.
“Never Surrender” set Hart as the brooding rebel all Canadians aspired to be and allowed the nation to vicariously live through his struggles and successes on the global stage. “Sunglasses at Night” made Corey Hart a household name; “Never Surrender” made him a national hero. Besides winning Hart the Single of the Year Juno, the song also helped propel Boy in the Box to Diamond sales status eight months after its release (a record no other Hart release has yet matched). With a little perseverance and a killer single, you can get some pretty impressive things done, indeed.
Still, there’s more to recommend on Boy in the Box than just its massive hit. Hart’s musical instincts are undeniable (as his singles demonstrate) but his debut album First Offense never made a cohesive artistic statement. Boy in the Box is a marked improvement over its predecessor’s patchiness, thanks in part to the title track’s thinly veiled references to James Dean and the parallels the media often drew between him and Hart. Playing to his strengths right off the top, “Boy in the Box” fits Hart’s brooding persona and surly singing style like a glove, and helps to introduce the album’s loose (if not wholly original) recurring theme. It’s not all egocentric, however. Though the fickleness of fame and feeling like an outsider runs straight through the album all the way to closer “Water from the Moon”, Boy in the Box makes commentary about both apartheid (“Sunny Places–Shady People”) and now-dated lyrical references to the Communist regimes of the former Soviet Union (“Komrade Kiev”).
“Komrade Kiev”, like most of Boy in the Box, is indebted to new wave’s glossy futurism while espousing the mid-80s big, brassy rock postures. Hart wholeheartedly embraces synths — they are all over the album’s melodies, beats, and rhythms — yet still ends up making a warm, human record. Like Hart the rebel outsider, the album didn’t comfortably fit in either genre. Instead, Boy in the Box pulls off an impressive Houdini-like escape, allowing Hart to slip past the expectations that handcuffed him after First Offense. Sure, it sounds entirely of its time, but that obstinate tie to the past is also part of its strength and charm. Boy in the Box pushes against the stereotype of 80s new-wave-meets-rock-mediocrity and carves out a permanent reminder of who and where Corey Hart was at the height of his fame. No matter how much time passes, no one can take that history away from him.