Before he was Saint Bob (and later officially anointed Sir Bob), he was Loudmouth Bob, the garrulous front man for punkers the Boomtown Rats, who were truly Ireland’s finest before some young Turks decided to call themselves the U-2’s. The Rats were to punk what Split Enz was to New Wave: They weren’t. Both bands wound up in their respective categories, but neither belonged there. The Rats were punk crossed with musical theater. Geldof wrote about suicidal socialites, Hitler’s girlfriend and, most famously, teenage girls who went on inexplicable killing sprees. All the while, his band mates filled the crevices with harmonies both glorious and ridiculous. The music varied from lullabies to reggae to Springsteen tributes. To say they were versatile would be greatly understating the point.
But none of that about Geldof and the Rats matters a tenth as much as the fact that he assembled Band Aid.
Sickened after watching a BBC special on the rampant starvation in Ethiopia, Geldof and his buddy Midge Ure from Ultravox made a few phone calls, assembled a lineup that was a Who’s Who of UK pop in 1984 and, 24 hours later, had recorded “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, the best benefit song ever. The following summer, they went one better, creating the bi-coastal concert event Live Aid. Geldof was suddenly one of the most revered men in rock. The Rats released their last album, In the Long Grass, at the height of his popularity. And it still stiffed. The Rats would soon split up.
Only then did his life start to get interesting.
He married British talk show host Paula Yates. He had three girls and named them Fifi, Peaches and Pixie. He then lost Paula and the girls to INXS singer Michael Hutchence. Paula takes the kids to Australia to be with Michael. Then, in 1997, Hutchence dies, seemingly a suicide though rumors swirled that he was into kinky sex and accidentally died while “playing”. Three years later, Yates is found dead in her home. Geldof gets his kids back (plus Tiger, a daughter born to Yates and Hutchence), but at the worst possible price.
Which brings us to Sex, Age & Death, Geldof’s first solo album since 1992’s
The Happy Club. It’s dour stuff, the darkest album he’s ever done, which is understandable given the massacre that has been the last seven years of his life. Anyone looking for some quip like “I’ve got a pain in my shoes and all I wanna do is dance” within these grooves would be well advised to steer clear. For those willing to get into the trenches, there are rewards, though it should be noted that Geldof’s misery is contagious to the point of being fatal.
Sex, Age & Death might be the first album ever recorded without a single major key, and quite possibly without a single major chord. The songs don’t exactly crawl but they’re very low to the ground, like someone trying to sneak past an old mate to whom he owes a large debt. The sonic landscape is a marked departure for Geldof; electronic flourishes abound. His singing mostly takes place in the lower register. He sounds, simply put, beaten. But he’s not going down without taking a few of us with him.
The most pointed barb on Sex, Age & Death has to be “Inside Your Head”, which is clearly aimed at Hutchence. “You got the palace, you left me the shed / What the fuck’s going on inside your head . . . So why put a noose around your neck?” “$6,000,000 Loser” is the album’s standout, with a low-key “Hand Jive” beat chugging away while Geldof deadpans “Take my head and fuck with it / Put it back again / The $6,000,000 loser rides again”. Only at the two-and-a-half-minute mark does the song take off, the drums going at double speed. It’s the most high-energy song on the album. It would be the lowest on any other Geldof album.
It may be unreasonable to expect Geldof to write the whimsical types of songs he wrote in his twenties, but a case could be made for writing something catchy. The music gets short shrift to the lyrical exorcism Geldof conducts here, and while it undoubtedly cleansed his soul in the process, listening to the procedure is rather difficult. “One for Me” and “Pale White Girls” possess near identical chord progressions, the latter of which is only slightly disguised by its 3/4 time signature. “Scream in Vain”, while an interesting foray into electronic music, does not offer much in the way of a hook.
Sir Bob is one of the unluckiest bastards in rock. He wasn’t able to age gracefully like Paul Weller, or even Joe Strummer. (John Lydon would have folded like a cheap card table had he been in Geldof’s shoes.) The Boomtown Rats are still a well-kept secret. His solo albums sell about 100 copies each. It’s commendable that he has persevered through such trials and tribulations, but what would really be a neat trick is if he wrote some killer songs again. With any luck, he’s purged the demons of the last decade of his life on Sex, Age & Death and, thanks to his new love Jeanne Marine (serenaded on the pre-bonus track closer “10:15”), finds the spark to write the kinds of songs that made people love him so much in the first place. But as it is, it’s 25 years later, and he’s still trying to learn the fine art of surfacing.