[23 January 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
What a weird album It’s a Beautiful Life is. Here you have members representing some of the best, most revered, most influential British bands of the post-punk era. You have Peter Hook, who played with Joy Division and New Order. Gary “Mani” Mounfield, once of the Stone Roses and for the last decade a member of Primal Scream. And, heavens, here’s Andy Rourke, who really hasn’t been heard from much since his days with the Smiths. The weight of those resumes is astounding, but here’s the catch. Hook, Mani, and Rourke are all bassists. Unquestionably, they each made vital contributions to their respective former bands. But the idea of a bass supergroup, especially given Hook’s track record with extra-New Order projects like Revenge and Monaco, well… you just knew it was going to be a trainwreck, with a very slight chance of awsomeness.
So it’s pretty weird that It’s a Beautiful Life is neither. And it’s also weird that Rourke plays not bass but guitar. And that he left the band before the album was finished. And that the band split up before the album was released, after Mani went public with a scathing attack on Hook. The two quickly made up, but Freebass remains a thing of the past. That leaves the album to deal with. When you consider Freebass’ formation was announced back in 2005, it’s amazing that It’s a Beautiful Life exists at all. And it’s pretty much right-down-the-middle, which is about the last thing you’d expect from Hook and Mani. It doesn’t go down swinging because it never really steps up to the plate. In other words, It’s a Beautiful Life isn’t much different at all from Monaco or the last couple New Order albums. And that’s weird because Hook acrimoniously left New Order (again) in part due to “different tastes”.
Another bit of weirdness. Why would three post-punk guys like Hook, Mani, and Rourke choose a singer who sounds like the guy from Europe? Relative unknown Gary Briggs has a generically over-earnest voice that is even more middle-of-the-road than the music is. At one point, ex-Roses singer Ian Brown, along with the Charlatans’ Tim Burgess, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, and Oasis’ Liam Gallagher, were named as guest vocalists. None of them appear here. Burgess was tapped for the band’s first EP. His deep, moody baritone lent some gravitas to the well-constructed “You Don’t Know This About Me”. But that track doesn’t appear on It’s a Beautiful Life, except in instrumental and remixed form on the American bonus disc. That leaves Briggs.
Even with that album title, you just don’t expect It’s a Beautiful Life to start off with something as pleasant, as breezy, as inoffensive as “Not Too Late”. What’s annoying is you’ll find yourself humming the song days later, which only reminds you how weird the whole Freebass experience is. And would you believe that It’s a Beautiful Life rises above mediocrity only when it dabbles in reggae? That’s right, “Kill Switch, pt. 141” is a genuinely pretty, reflective tune that highlights the strengths of all members, especially Mani’s dubby, Jah Wobble-like bassline. “Stalingrad” goes more dancehall and provides a reprieve from Briggs, as Hook throws out a series of words like “peace, love, hate, fear”. It’s a good thing that Mani’s bassline is much deeper than Hook’s insights.
In other news, Rourke’s ambitions as a guitar player apparently don’t extend beyond aping his former bandmate Johnny Marr’s jangly sound. But there really isn’t much guitar here anyway. The production is clean and sterile, which does no favors to Briggs, but at least keeps things sounding professional. Hook’s legacy is the way he plays bass more as a lead instrument, and he does so here, too. That takes away any potential clashes with Mani, but the disappointment is Hook doesn’t get off any good licks. He literally could do those stabbing lead riffs in his sleep. So Mani’s left to hold up the ship, and he does an admirable job. “Secrets and Lies” and “The God Machine” even have something close to a post-punk edge.
Overall, though, It’s a Beautiful Life ventures surprisingly little and makes only modest gains. Providing neither bass-tasticness on one hand nor “three bassists walk into a bar”-joke fodder on the other, it’s just sort of there. Weird.