Let’s agree for a moment that we capitalist Westerners live in a medicalized society—an environment in which the health industry alone holds the power to diagnose and treat illness—that treats dissent as disease, a world that herds its insurgents into inescapable compounds full of white coats and padded rooms and thereby discredits subversive rhetoric. If we do indeed inhabit this Foucaultian nightmare, then Mark Stewart’s musical legacy has undoubtedly been shoveled into the furnace by the powers-that-be.
Vehemently political and markedly learned in literature, Marxism, and French critical theory, the seminal albums that Stewart recorded in the early 1980s have over time become more scrutinized than praised. Rock scribes have argued with Stewart in interviews, insisting that his everything-is-political presupposition is shortsighted and extremist. And we’ve readily accepted that Stewart’s positions are extreme because we’ve always found his music confrontational and disruptive. So his work with The Maffia has been relegated to the fringes, where it stands, like jazz-fusion or San Fran psych, as a radical development that brimmed with exciting ideas but has failed to age well. In other words, Stewart’s been pegged as very of-his-era—and we therefore needn’t give credence to his insights.
But when we listen to Learning to Cope with Cowardice (1983)—which is now reissued with four bonus tracks—we’re struck by an immensely creative future-dub aesthetic that sounds no less edgy today than it did in Thatcher-era England. The songs that a teenaged Stewart recorded during the late 1970s as frontman of agit-funk outfit The Pop Group might be his most accessible material (especially to our post-punk-revival-surviving ears), but The Pop Group’s two albums are far less sonically prophetic than the records Stewart made after dissolving that band.
When the Group splintered in 1980, Stewart began working with British dub visionary Adrian Sherwood, whose futuristic creations improved in their alien sound and alienating potential upon Lee Perry’s studio science. Sherwood introduced turntables and sampling into Stewart’s sound, while The New Age Steppers, Sherwood’s studio “house” band, laid down reggae grooves that were less propulsive than The Pop Group’s jarring guitar rock. With Learning to Cope with Cowardice, the first fruits of this collaboration, Stewart blurred the lines between reggae, electronic music, and British DIY rock, emitting seismic waves that would ripple through hip-hop, trip-hop, industrial music, and dubstep in the coming decades.
With death-dub producer Burial having in the last year reminding so many of us that yes, there is new musical ground to be broken, and yes, such ground always has a political dimension, Cowardice is due for a reappraisal. And in order to judge the album properly, we have to answer one question: Is Mark Stewart in his right mind?
Let’s admit that our society isn’t an entirely medicalized wasteland, that multiple modes of production are competing at once and leaving us caught somewhere between them, that accurate statements about the nature of our world are often both/and propositions. And here’s one of them: Stewart is both a remarkably prescient social prognosticator who railed against the very power structures that would cause critics and listeners to neglect and de-politicize his music and anguished, crazed, addled by distorted and distorting thoughts.
We see this duality at play in this album’s opening title track, in which a filthy, dancefloor-packing bass riff is disrupted by screeching electronics and Stewart’s reverb-laden voice, which impels us to “Think about work”. The strain toward anomie that capitalism breeds is pervasive, crashing our parties and buzzing in our headspaces. Stewart vividly illustrates this tension in this song, but his act is more descriptive than prescriptive; one leaves with the sense that Stewart himself is too torn asunder by capitalism to fight it effectually. Which is why his cry of “Let’s storm the citadels!” falls upon a sparse, low-pulsed musical landscape and a chorus of ghostly, half-gone backing vocalists in “The Paranoia of Power”, why he sounds in bonus cut “High Ideals and Crazy Dreams” as though he’s convincing himself for the 900th time not to give those things up, and why this record resonates not only within our critical minds, but inside of that hole behind our ribs where we hoard and hold fast to our insecurities.