The eighties and soft rock power ballads go together like Hindley and Brady - that is, a coupling based more by infamy than anything worthwhile and one that would have left the world a better place had the twain never met. Lovers leavin', lovers dyin', lovers not understandin' or lovers not appearin' in the first place - any one of these scenarios was staple fodder for the genre and excuse enough to break out the major chords and the dry ice. 'I Want To Know What Love Is' fits four square into the last of these scenarios, being an anguished cry of......well, of wanting to know what love is.
First off, kudos to the very English Mick Jones for presenting a grammatically correct title rather than the Americanised 'wanna' that Lou Gramm sings throughout. Yes, although Foreigner are an Anglo American hybrid, there was never any doubt that the Anglo faction have always known which side their bread is peanut buttered on in terms of their musical output. And in terms of 'I Want To Know What Love Is', that means a song that would sound more at home as the last dance at a High School Prom than a Sixth Form disco. Far more at home in fact.
The soft focus, synthesiser led opening aims for the solemn gravitas of a hymn but falls short of its intent and instead arrives as inoffensive and unsubstantial as moonlight on water, a sound virtually indistinguishable from so many other American soft rock bands of the era - it doesn't scream out 'it's the new Foreigner single', and taking it on a blind taste test then you could be forgiven for mistaking it for Toto, REO Speedwagon, Mr Mister, Journey or any other band of that ilk. Not that this is anything to be proud of, but it was a formula that shifted the units in the eighties.
So much for the music. Of the vocals, Gramm's voice has never been a weak point but there's something faintly embarrassing about his impassioned delivery of club footed lyrics like "I gotta take a little time, a little time to think things over. I better read between the lines, in case I need it when I'm older" as if he was imparting the sage like wisdom of the ancients, and the cumulative effect of the words and music of the opening minute is that 'I Want To Know What Love Is' should by rights be counted out cold on the canvas.
But, against the odds, it rallies at the chorus which is preceded by a startlingly awkward key change before taking the earlier hymn like aspiration and, by adding a gospel choir backing from the New Jersey Mass Choir, running with it into a different animal altogether. The gospel overtones provide an upbeat counterpoint to Gramm's downbeat vocals in the way that only gospel can, helped on its way by the direct and to the point lyrics that eschew bad metaphor for a simple plea that most anyone can relate to:"I wanna know what love is. I want you to show me".
There's time for another batch of clunky verse until the chorus comes round again, but after that it's a full two minute reprise and retread of it to the end with the choir gaining prominence all the time, making for a coda joyous enough to almost block out the bad work at the start. It leaves 'I Want To Know What Love Is' as a song both in and out of its time, but by getting halfway there it's still far superior product to Toto, REO Speedwagon, Mr Mister, Journey or any other band of that ilk who rarely got as close.