Recorded in the Bahamas for Island Records, Clues has a dual personality: part straight rock and part New Wave, which by 1980 was beginning to break through the pop charts. Palmer kept the band he used in Secrets, dividing guitar work with Kenny Mazur and playing alongside two underappreciated side men, Jack Waldman on keyboards and Dony Wynn on drums, all of whom make their mark. But the largest presence on the album was Gary Numan's.
Numan arrived in the late 1970s with an eerie persona, robotic vocals, and sci-fi lyrics that suggested a dark future ruled by machines. In the liner notes to Addictions Vol. 2, Palmer recalled that Numan was actually "a painfully shy person" who concealed his insecurities behind a mask of bravado. On Clues Numan's influence is unmistakable: he played keyboards, co-wrote one of the songs, and may have inspired Palmer to feature synthesizers more prominently. Even the cover of The Beatles' "Not a Second Time," which probably surpasses the original, features a Numanesque synth in its chorus. "Johnny and Mary," a hit in the U.K., is the sort of goth-romantic ballad that could have appeared on one of Numan's albums.
Despite the incongruity between Palmer's Caribbean world and Numan's metal one, their combination yields surprising and impressive results. Palmer's persistent cheerfulness removes some of the monotonous melancholy from Numan's "I Dream of Wires," a song in which "the last electrician alive" laments "new ways" - in Palmer's hands, it was nearly a club hit. Funk proves a common interest in "Found You Now." If you listen to Numan's "Films," you'll understand why the hip-hop world has been stealing ("sampling") his riffs.
"Looking for Clues" gives us something a bit different: a lighthearted, Police-type danceable reggae, with humorous lyrics and what too many rock songs lack-a xylophone solo. If you remember the video, this is the part where the skeleton dances. "Sulky Girl" continues the AOR of Secrets and foreshadows the Power Station production techniques which would later send Palmer up the charts. "What Do You Care" combines the album's two personalities into a hybrid of Devoesque chorus and Pleasure Principle rhythms. "Woke Up Laughing" is the album's gem: a hypnotic tune with enigmatic lyrics and toy organ which conjure up a beachside mirage. According to the liner notes for Woke Up Laughing: Adventures in Tropical Music, the song uses an mbira rhythm popular in Zimbabwe. Palmer revised the song for that compilation but I much prefer the original.
Craftsmanship, adventure, and fun are trademarks of Clues, just as they were of Palmer's unfortunately truncated career. To my mind it remains one of his better efforts.