Serbian new romantic music with funky inflections makes for highly entertaining listening
Examining music from around the world is always an interesting process for us, but often when looking for music from dictatorships, it can become more interesting due to there usually being a lack of artistic and cultural freedom. The sorts of music they can play versus what they cannot play can often surreptitiously tell the story of their country’s political situation. Such is the case with Serbian musician Oliver Mandić, who rose to fame during the years when Serbia was a constituent part of the former Yugoslavia. A communist state, Yugoslavia was known for its break with the USSR and ensuing relative openness and tolerance towards Western music and culture, which explains Mandić’s 80s new romantic style of music. Mandić had been in several commercially unsuccessful rock bands in the 1970s, and it was only once he became a solo act in the early 1980s that he managed to achieve mainstream popularity across Yugoslavia. He decided to enter a state of semi-retirement from the late 1980s onward, and for a while he preferred to spend his time associating with Željko Ražnatović, known as Akan, who was a mobster, paramilitary leader and probable war criminal (he was assassinated before his trial), even going so far as to serve in his unit as a logistician during the Croatian War. During this period and after, he has occasionally been releasing new music and appearing for some rare live performances (though he has rather amusingly released six greatest hits albums, two more than he released as a solo artist), Mandić’s music has endured. This album gives an insight as to why.
“Mandić is at his best while rocking away in these soul-inflected pop-rock songs...”
His third album, Dođe mi da vrisnem tvoje ime, cringe album cover aside, is a good interpretation of the sort of British new romantic music that was popular during the 1980s. An offshoot of glam rock and new wave, acts like Bryan Ferry, David Sylvian, and Spandau Ballet all achieved popularity with this genre and they all seem to have had an influence on Mandić’s music on this album. The album has several good songs, but the song that, in my view, stands head and shoulders above the rest is Kaje Bre, which manages to combine funky bass playing with an extremely catchy acoustic guitar, and Mandić’s breathy vocals give the song an epic feel. Generally, Mandić is at his best while rocking away in these soul-inflected pop-rock songs, with Pomagajte Drugovi, Ne Daj Mu and Fato being particularly good, with the latter of those having a really irresistible and danceable bass and drum rhythm section you could imagine someone like Chaka Khan using.
However, the album is not all candies and roses. I like his ballads far less than his rockers, and the worst offender of the bunch has to be Ja Sum Lud, which has a slow, oompah band beat to it and a recurring synth riff that is interminable by the time we get to the end of the song, which at over four minutes is very much overstaying its welcome. Another ballad named Bobane is not much better, though it is at least melodic. Sounding similar to some Pink Floyd emotional ballads like Mother or Goodbye Blue Sky, it lacks any potential emotional resonance as I do not speak Serbian, and while I realise that not knowing the language might be impeding me here, I do also feel the melodies and choral elements don’t add up to more than the sum of its parts. Furthermore, while Mandić is a decent singer, his rough and ready vocal mannerisms do not suit balladeering. The one exception for me would be the title track, which is a moody and brooding synth-pop song that makes the most of Mandić’s breathy vocals. There is enough on this album for me to recommend it. The soul-inflected funky rockers are all enjoyable, and while the ballads are more hit and miss, he nonetheless manages to pull off a few decent ones, and overall, one can understand why Mandić hit the big time with songs like these in 1980s Yugoslavia.