On the one hand, the Sounds recycle punk, New Wave, disco, and ladle it on thick with the cheesy keyboards. And the sound isn’t too sleek or polished, either, so that, despite the cheesy keyboards, the effect is like hearing them, keyboards and all, at a clammy, sweaty club. Considering all the bands trying for the same feel these days, the Sounds do a really bouncing, bopping, rocking pastiche of CBGB’s in, say, 1983.
What makes this less fun than it should be is the sense of finite possibilities that informs almost all of these songs. The Sounds kick off “Riot”, their evocation and tribute and rebuttal to old school punk, by declaring that “Right or wrong, it’s just for fun / Who really cares, we could have a ball”.
They then declare that “Sid was not that vicious / He killed his little mistress” and “Johnny’s not that rotten / In case you have forgotten”. Given that context, the riot they plan to start in the next lines becomes very much a local one, more “That party was a riot” than “White riot, I wanna riot”.
Even assuming the truth of their statements (What, Sid only killed his little mistress?) and that punk music or any music can’t really change the world, it was still the ignorance of those “truths” that made the original punks so galvanizing. Sure, both Johnny Rotten-slash-Lydon and Joe Strummer later admitted that the Punk Revolution failed, despite their own efforts, to save the world. But it was the belief that it could that helped to make the Sex Pistols and Clash such vibrant forces. They sounded loud and crude, but there was also the mutually acknowledged truth, mutually acknowledged by fans and haters alike, that the anger and volume of their music was meant to be an incitement to action in the world outside a club or bar or arena. If they weren’t as dangerous as some feared (or hoped), it was still the belief in their threat that made them, even on purely aesthetic grounds, better artists.
Likewise, even if one doesn’t grade love ballads by the ridiculous standard of how faithful the singer is in real life, there nonetheless should be a believable sincerity, at least in those three or so minutes, that the singer is really, truly in love. Even if it’s a lie, the lie can still be moving and inspiring if faked deeply enough. Ezra Pound wrote that only emotion endures and, certainly for any aspiring party band (even one as ironic and campy as the B-52’s), the emotion of the moment is especially crucial in carrying in the day, in fostering the idea that you can dance this mess around and it will mean something. Even if it’s a one-night stand, it’s that much more satisfying if you can fake the ache of love.
Which, whether about loving another person or the punk scene or not loving the music business, the Sounds do only once.
Being in love with the lie of love has been a popular entertainment staple since before Shakespearean sonnets to after Dolly Parton’s peak, but the Sounds are nearly exclusively in love with that deception. Moreover (as when Maja Ivarsson sings that she needs her baby, but can’t bear to tell him, and that “it’s great”), they really seem in love with the deception (as opposed to making do with it, à la Shakespeare and Parton), which snuffs the tension between longing and reality.
Thankfully, there’s “Rock ‘n Roll”, about coming to love the means, rock ‘n’ roll, even more than the end, sex (oh, yeah, or “love”). Sung with appropriate melancholy, there’s actually ambivalence and (are you listening, Ezra Pound?) emotion. It’s not Yeats’s circus animals deserting, but I’m still grateful to have a pop song about the inherent tension of loving art for art’s sake, rather than as a distillation of life. I really might love that song.
Mainly, though, besides the sheer catchiness of their songs, what saves the Sounds is their openly adolescent defiance. No doubt lots of fans of the original punks were just kids who understood little and cared less about the class, social, and political agendas of some of their favorite bands, who saw in punk simply a cool look and a way to have an angry good time. Right or wrong, this album is their legacy.
I’d feel funny recommending it, but I’ll take this album’s high school, pissed detachment over Interpol’s art college, affected disaffectedness any day because. Firstly, pissed high schoolers aren’t so smug and thus, secondly, pissed high schoolers stand a better chance of getting over themselves and improving. If this were a high school test, I’d give it a B.