One of my favorite products of the indie-pop movement of the past several years is called “Debbie Loves Joey”. It’s by the idiosyncratic Welsh four-piece Helen Love, and it’s a love song—sort of. The titular couple are, of course, none other than Debbie Harry and Joey Ramone, the de facto king and queen of New York City’s late ‘70s/early ‘80s punk scene. But the extent to which “Debbie Loves Joey” is a love song is defined less by the actual nature of Ramone and Harry’s relationship than by Helen Love’s deep affection for, and fascination with, everything the Blondie frontwoman and Ramones frontman represent(ed): specifically NYC, punk rock, and the by-gone era in which the city and genre coalesced into something more interesting than either music or geography.
More generally, they’re after the unflappable sense of cool that the pair seemed to embody. And, as always, there’s hardly a more elusive virtue, a fact attested to by the track’s brisk pace (it’s as if they’re trying in vain to keep up with the names and ideas they’re referencing) and its tongue-in-cheek ebullience. Part of what’s great about “Debbie Loves Joey” is that Helen Love’s inherent marginality is deployed to such ingenious effect—in the service of an ode to two tireless, passionate advocates of marginality, both musical and cultural. They may well want to be our Joey Ramone (or our Debbie Harry), yet, at the same time, they sound happy enough as the British Moldy Peaches.
But what happens when that same cool, that I-can-do-no-wrong-(and-I-could-give-a-shit-less-if-I-do) attitude, comes to elude one of the few individuals to have once momentarily possessed it? It’s certainly a more problematic situation, especially since Debbie Harry is far too pivotal a figure in pop history to play the marginal wallflower card. Lifelong champion of the fringes though she may be, she’s also iconic, closer in cultural status to Madonna than Regula Sing. And Necessary Evil, Harry’s first solo album in 14 years, is closer both in cool quotient and in quality to Madge’s deservedly maligned American Life than to LiLiPUT (or Blondie or Parallel Lines or even 2003’s The Curse of Blondie).
Like “Debbie Loves Joey”, Harry’s new album suggests a futile chase, in this case of relevance, edge, and—right—cool. It succeeds only insofar as Debbie Harry, or something with her name attached to it, could never be entirely lame; this is still, after all, the same woman who sang “X-Offender” and “Heart of Glass”. That said, however, it’s mostly awful, with Harry sounding hopelessly out of step as she hisses lines like “the devil’s dick is hard to handle” and “I sold the lasts things on Ebay / I was without doubt”. No, this isn’t a defensible case of a veteran artist attempting to do something different (as I initially hoped on my first spin of Necessary Evil), and then judged unfairly against, or within the context of, their signature work. Rather more depressingly, this is an artist failing at the very things she used to do better than anybody else: acidic wit, offhanded seduction, bold provocation, cool.
Tellingly, the album’s only legitimately redeeming moment barely (if at all) involves Harry. It’s an ostensible throwaway, buried near the end of the record and after half a minute’s worth of silence, written by Blondie member Chris Stein (who also co-wrote Necessary Evil’s less remarkable “Naked Eye“). It’s called “Jen Jen”, and through some four-plus minutes of pure, hypnotic groove and rhythmic chanting, sounds as of-the-moment as anything by LCD Soundsystem or Justice. Stein is looking forward, or at least to the tides of the present, for inspiration and the result is exciting, if suspiciously out of place on this album. Harry, meanwhile, is suspended in time, dashing after her past on a treadmill, except that now she’s collecting Social Security and, “Jen Jen” aside, her band-mates aren’t picking up any of the slack.