[6 June 2014]
At 68 legendary Blondie front woman Debbie Harry just wants to dance. And what’s wrong with that? The ghost in the machine has a good ear. After 40 years of crafting pop music and touring the world as working musicians, minus 16 years of hiatus between the early ‘80s to late ‘90s, Blondie deserves a break. And while they may want to take a break from rocking to dance, they show no sign of slowing down. Blondie 4(0) Ever is a cleverly bundled collection of rerecorded greatest hits and an entirely new album of songs entitled Ghosts of Download. There is something old and something new here. In hoping to appease all factions of their fans, and with some self-serving interest of securing the rights to their original recordings, Blondie is offering another greatest hits album with something completely different.
With already ten established greatest hits collections and three remix compilations one may wonder why Blondie would feel the need to release another greatest hits album. As noted before, Blondie sought to own the masters of the original recordings for commercial purposes. Aditionally, some of Blondie’s songs such as “Rapture” and “Call Me” have evolved over time and their live versions are arguably superior to the original recordings. And tragically, some Blondie gems suffer from a tinny recording. There is good news and bad news. The songs of Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux are mostly faithful adaptations of their original recordings. There is little to no improvisation. Debbie Harry proves she stills has her pipes by hitting the notes on “Heart of Glass” and “Atomic”, albeit in altered keys. Still, some classics lack the rebellious punch that made them excellent in the first place. “Hanging on the Telephone” and “Rip Her to Shreds” fall into this category. On the plus side, it is nice to hear the recordings in full fidelity and with enough experience to perfect the madness that made them hits. Deluxe Redux is a novel addition to any Blondie fan’s collection but still lacks the heightened energy of their live performances.
And now for something completely different. Ghosts of Download in unlike any Blondie album that came before it. It is littered with guest artists, it is the most electronic-based album in their catalogue, and it’s their most sexually explicit. Unlike 2011’s Panic of Girls, which sought to evoke an aura of classic Blondie sprinkled with new wave rock, reggae covers, and the like, Ghosts of Download is wildly unpredictable, with no one track sounding like the last.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first. Sexuality and age is typically a taboo subject in western pop culture, especially if you are a woman. In Blondie’s illustrious career the band has defied sexism, genre-categorization, and now ageism. While Harry has been lyrically suggestive in the past: “I could give you some head, and shoulders to lie on” from “Look Good In Blue” and “I would give you my finest hour / The one I spent watching you shower” from “Picture This”, on Ghosts she is onto another level. Just by looking at the track list Debbie Harry wants to be part of the mile high club and be taken in the night. With lyrics like “Do not disturb is on the doorway / We are both inside burning up the room rate,” Harry is holding nothing back. And why should she? Bay-boomers refuse to grow old, refuse to retire. Why should this apply to sexuality? South Park‘s Cartman once declared, “It’s my hot body, I’ll do what I want”. This appears to be the mantra of Ghosts of Download. The ‘70s sex icon’s unabashed sexuality is in your face (now), and she feels no reason to apologize.
That said, Ghosts of Download is Blondie’s most energetic in years. Whether it’s the inclusion of younger members Matt Katz-Bohen and Tommy Kessler, a new found love of electronic latin beats, or a sexual renaissance, no one can say. But Ghosts of Download rejuvenates the seasoned band’s sound with a jovial freshness. The songs on Ghosts aren’t terribly deep, nor are they reflective, sentimental, or nostalgic. Instead they are present, in the moment, and a synergistic mix of emotion and craftwork. Blondie is living fully in the present and looking toward the future.
The psychedelic cover art created by comic artist J.H. Williams III, known for his work on Batwoman and Promethea, sets the tone of the eclectic album. Still largely written by Christ Stein and Debbie Harry, with production by Jeff Saltzman and Matt Katz-Bohen, the 13 song collection features musical styles ranging from latin pop, EDM, reggaeton, and their unique brand of synthrock. The band is particularly proud of their new found latin influence and feature it prominently on display in the album’s first half. The first track, “Sugar on the Side”, is an electronic cumbia-inspired pop ditty that could easily fit into top 40 radio rotation. It features Colombian musical collective Systema Solar with Harry presenting a bad girl persona of a woman scorned.
While the band is heavily promoting “Sugar on the Side”, it wasn’t the first single from Ghosts. The mostly overlooked “A Rose by Any Name” was released in June of 2013 and Beth Ditto from The Gossip guests. The infectious chorus celebrates gender fluidity and bisexuality stating, “If you’re a boy or if you’re a girl / I’ll love you just the same.” However, the song feels like it could have benefited from another verse or a musical change up in the second half as the repetition becomes noticeable. The party rock number also features Harry’s discovery of autotune. A move not meant to cover up vocal inadequacies but to present a visage of modernity. Those familiar with Blondie’s work shouldn’t be too surprised by their use of electronic tools, having incorporated technology and video into their music early on in their career.
Long time Blondie fans might be surprised that opening of their latest album sounds so atypically like a Blondie album. The only track that conforms to the power synthpop that the band has become known for is the fourth titled “Winter” about a troublesome relationship that is “cold as ice”. But the shift also isn’t such a sharp departure for Blondie. The multicultural milieu of New York has informed their music since 1980’s Autoamerican. Even more so, the proliferation of the internet itself might have impacted Ghosts of Download as the title alludes. Stein reports it is the first album that was made with members in different locations, often sending tracks back and forth and tweaking them on personal computers. Yet the effort sounds more cohesive than The Curse of Blondie and parts of No Exit. The availability of world music is also more assessable than ever before, further breaking down cultural barriers.
World music is a fitting descriptor for much of the album. “I Want to Drag You Around” is a dreamy low-key, but still danceable, reggae-inspired track that sounds like a summer day on the beach with drink in hand. Yet not every combination works. With a band that experiments as much as Blondie, not everything is going to be a winner. Even the most skilled alchemist will get smoke in the eyes sometimes. Despite the promising reggaeton beat of “I Screwed Up” the chorus never reaches its full potential as Harry bemoans, “I screwed up / I’ll do it better on the flipside”.
Where Ghosts of Download really shines, though, is in its club bangers. “Rave”, featuring Miss Guy from The Toilet Boys, recalls a ‘70s New York scene with a rash disco-punk energy. “Shutter to the gutter and slip into a limousine,” aptly and succinctly describes Blondie’s career from CBGB mainstays to wildly successful pop musicians. Yet, the sound isn’t dated. It elicits a club party urgency with a scintillating chorus, “It’s never been better” Harry belts. Whereas, “Take Me in the Night” makes good use of its hooking chorus while displaying the best of Harry’s vocal range. “Mile High”, while sparse on lyrics, creates a dreamlike techno atmosphere that would be right at home in any dance club. The use of chants, deliberate repetition, and meticulous production make these songs as timely as anything that Rihanna or Miley Cyrus have put out. While “Take it Back” proves Debbie still has the fiery attitude she fostered in the ‘70s and features a taunting chorus of 6000 people recorded live by DJ Hector Fonseca. Despite its electronic interface it evokes classic snarky Blondie standards.
The band’s only look to the past is the cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ode to bathhouse addiction, “Relax”. Surprisingly, the controversial new wave hit starts out as a ballad accompanied by piano and slowly builds to its post disco apex. The back up singers sadly add little prowess to the song but it is fun nonetheless. The celebration of sexual perversion fits right along with the mood of Ghosts of Download. The irony of a once new wave band covering a new wave classic 30 years after its success is palpable, but also a testament to Blondie’s longevity.
Ghosts of Download ends on a quirky note, as most Blondie albums do. “Backroom” describes the scenario of a rambunctious vampiress running the night life of a dancehall scene. The song conjures up imagery of True Blood‘s leather vampire bar Fangtasia, with a catchy gothic-dancehall vibe, if such a thing exists. Blondie still occasionally enjoys exploring the pulp-fiction subject matter that once permeated their early work.
Ghosts of Download isn’t a perfect album. There is some album filler and a few awkward steps, but the pop maestro’s may still have you humming along with their melodies. And it would be nice to hear more live instrumentation, as the band feels largely absent. Clem Burke can be heard driving the beat in some songs such as “Rave” and “A Rose by Any Name”, but gets lost in the more electronic heavy ones. Blondie’s headstrong foray into EDM may turn some long time fans away, but it may also gain them an entirely new audience in the process.
Whether or not Harry’s declarations of all night clubbing are authentic is inconsequential because the energy on Ghosts is authentic. “Rave”, “Take Me in the Night”, or “Sugar on the Side”, all have the potential to be additions to Blondie’s repertoire. But the pop music landscape is as unpredictable as Blondie’s catalogue of hits. Any track on the album could be successful if met with the right conditions. Ghosts of Download is a well-crafted collection of pop songs that sees singer Debbie Harry at her most exuberant in years. Blondie have come a long way since their CBGB origins, and their ‘70s heyday, but on Ghosts of Download they prove they are still a band that have a penchant for pop, and a lust for life.