More than four decades ago, the Australian rock band Men at Work took over the globe with a song so bright and catchy that listeners often missed the darkness that undergirded the lyrics. “Who Can It Be Now?” was an irresistible musical confection. It was also the story of a paranoiac, in isolation, clinging to shreds of sanity. At least one Aussie artist got the message: rock singer Cleo Alexandra. She’s taken the 1981 single, toughened it up, and brought the subtext roaring to the surface. Her reimagined version of “Who Can It Be Now” is disturbed, ferocious, and artfully damaged — and every bit as delicious as the original.
What gives Cleo Alexandra the audacity to rework a classic pop song in her own darkly glamorous image? The same impertinence that has defined all of her recordings and made her a favorite among fans of adventurous pop-rock on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Every song she’s made so far has been dripping with danger, sizzling with gorgeous menace, radiating vampiric energy. Her fellow Australian pop singers have noticed, and many of them have found themselves drawn into her whirlpool. Among her most ardent supporters is the singer, songwriter, and actor Rick Springfield, who has contributed backing vocals to the Men at Work cover.
But this is Cleo Alexandra’s show, and she makes the most of it with a sultry performance that deepens the destabilization and foregrounds the sexual ambiguity of the original. She’s extracted the melody like a jeweler removing a gem from a bezel and re-set it in a track that amplifies its unease. The world-famous hook becomes a barbed guitar riff; the bouncy new wave rhythms become slinky post-trip-hop grooves. Six-strings probe and insinuate, synthesizers and electronic effects shimmer, and the star coos the lyrics in a voice that’s part challenge, part come-on, and part nightmare.
The music video is similarly haunted. Cleo Alexandra is a spectral presence in the clip, imbuing these frames with dangerous allure and the twisted poise of a pageant queen turned wicked. She shares time with sequences from storied horror movies and slasher flicks: Scream, The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street, and other fear-inducing favorites from the ’80s and ’90s. The editing is relentless and breathless; it’s a barrage of images that speak straight to our collective memory of fear and the darkest parts of our unconscious. It’s a suitable accompaniment to a song about a mysterious knock on the door in the middle of the night — a knock that keeps echoing all these years later.