After Torch, it was hard to predict which musical direction Carly Simon would go in. Over the previous three albums, she had moved through a wider range of musical genres than most artists cover in their entire career. In a rare television interview in 1981, she answered a question on this point by saying, 'The next album I do is likely to be even more of a risk than this one', adding, 'I could see myself doing an album of Irish drinking songs from the 15th century!' She was kidding, of course, but the joke highlighted just how wide the possibilities might be.
On the other hand, Hello Big Man was full of surprises, including a cover of the Bob Marley classic "Is This Love", with the superstar reggae rythym section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare providing backup. If this sounds an unlikely match, the results cannot be argued with: Sly and Robbie's strong underpinning of bass and drums allows her voice to float effortlessly over the lilting melody. They also co-wrote and played on the deceptively easy-going "Such a Good Boy", which bounces along playfully until reaching its surprise ending. (If the Grammies gave out awards for "Best O. Henry Ending in Song", she would surely win every year.) The reggae backing on "Floundering" is also very effective, providing an ironic counterpoint to the song's deconstruction of a metropolitan, middle-class self-help addict. Her observations on the culture of therapy - She's looking for a cure/She does not know exactly what for - are as incisive as those she makes about romantic relationships. It is "Menemsha", though, that takes the album's prize for the most ambitious and original song - musically and lyrically - as it transplants West Indies rythyms and sensuality to Martha's Vineyard, in a chanty, nostalgic reverie that is all at once full of joy and sadness.
The accompanying promotional video - her first dramatic rather than performance video - was shot like a voyeuristic Hitchcock thriller, and it had a high profile on MTV. Its opening shots were arresting to say the least: you'd have to go back to the Bond film Dr No (1963), and Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in a bikini, to find a swim suit scene that prompted so many jaws to drop in wonderment. But the song itself was too sexually frank for top 40 radio. It went nowhere fast on the charts and, although the album enjoyed great reviews, it never took off commercially either.
1983 was the year of Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, who made their respective debuts that same Autumn with the youthful, carefree hits "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "Holiday". In these very early days of their careers, they projected images of frivolity and childishness; they were 'girls' and 'boy-toys' rather than adult women or serious musicians. This was not the time, then, for sophisticated and adventurous pop music, nor for women of stature and intelligence. Thus, even an engaging and intriguing cover could not save Hello Big Man from the outgoing tide of popular culture. Nevertheless, the album remains a highlight of Carly's oeuvre, and a mark of her own ability to explore the streams and currents of pop music without becoming stuck in its shallows.