World Party: Dumbing Up

[5 June 2006]

By Patrick Schabe

It’s difficult to say anything negative about Karl Wallinger without feeling like a jerk.  Aside from being by all accounts a nice guy with a nice guy message full of peace, love, and tenderness, he also suffered an aneurysm that very nearly killed him, and did leave him devoid of motor functions, including speech, for a long stretch.  The fact that he’s spent six years in recovery can’t help but weigh into the evaluation of his music.

But no matter how you slice it, Dumbing Up is simply not the best World Party effort.  In fact, there’s something slightly anachronistic about it in 2006, but again, it’s hard to blame Wallinger for this.  You see, Dumbing Up was written and recorded at the turn of the century, and was originally released in October 2000.  This was when the dot.conomy was still clinging to life, gas prices were un-alarming, George Bush had yet to be elected President, war in Iraq was a past occurrence, and before the events of September 11, 2001, March 11, 2004, and July 5, 2005 exploded international terrorism onto the world stage.  Given all that’s happened since October of 2000, it’s hard for any sentiment to not sound innocent to the point of naiveté. 

And yet, in spite of all this, it makes sense for Wallinger to use this album as an attempt to salvage a career and the World Party name.  The aneurysm that sidelined him occurred just after the original release of Dumbing Up, and without an artist to support it, the record quickly languished and sunk, all but forgotten by EMI.  The shame of this was that Dumbing Up represented a real return to form for World Party after a solid but average Egyptology in 1997.  So, considering that Dumbing Up sought to reclaim some lost ground the first time around, it might as well be given a second chance in doing so as World Party attempts to regain everything.

But as I said, Dumbing Up is still not the best that World Party has to offer.  That spot is still unequivocally held by 1990’s Goodbye Jumbo.  Where “Ship of Fools” helped support the debut disc Private Revolution to good sales and establishing a solid reputation for Wallinger’s then-solo act (following his short stint in the Waterboys), Goodbye Jumbo was the real high-water mark for World Party, topping critics’ lists and the alternative/college charts.  The lush pop constructions of “Way Down Now” and “Put the Message in the Box” helped cement Wallinger’s reputation as a gifted songwriter imminently indebted to the McCartney school of pop craft.  Roughly contemporary with Tears for Fears’s The Seeds of Love, XTC’s Oranges and Lemons, and the Lightning Seeds’ Cloudcuckooland, Goodbye Jumbo emerged at the perfect time for Wallinger, with British pop in the throes of a psychedelic revival that saw the mature Beatlisms flourish with the aforementioned bands, and the heavier, dancier trippiness of the Madchester influence circulating among the youth crowd.  Wallinger’s distinctive melding of melodic pop and socially conscious, environmentalist lyrics slotted into place perfectly.

Although the 1993 follow-up, Bang!, produced the hit single “Is It Like Today?”, the album was a scattershot step down from Goodbye Jumbo, and Egyptology fared little better in providing a standout.  So Goodbye Jumbo remains the gold standard for World Party, and a decade later Wallinger would not have been able to change that with Dumbing Up.

In fact, Dumbing Up feels like a kind of settling, continuing into the sort of staid maturity that marked Egyptology and losing some of the verve of earlier works, if not the pop mastery.  But where Dumbing Up succeeds is in taking that formula into different directions, and expanding the base of World Party’s sound.  As other reviewers have noted, whereas World Party always seemed faithful to the Beatles version of pure pop, Dumbing Up seems equally as influenced by Bob Dylan, and is the more diverse for it.  Nowhere on this album is this more prominent than on the Dylan-accented patter of “Who Are You?”, an obvious nod to the Dylan of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.

However, “Who Are You?” isn’t the chosen first single from Dumbing Up.  That honor goes to “What Does It Mean Now?” (another question-marked single!), which wisely sounds like a close cousin of “Is It Like Today?”, referencing the best of the pop mélange that characterized World Party’s most beloved hits, and not distancing Wallinger too far from the Beatlesque base he’s known for.  Tracks like “Another Thousand Years” and “I Thought You Were a Spy” also serve to remind people that Oasis didn’t spring out of nowhere.  Nor has Wallinger abandoned his dabbling in Prince-like funk, as evidenced by “Here Comes the Future”, which is bolstered by a charmingly amateurish and flat guest rap on the bridge.

But ultimately, Dumbing Up feels weighed down by chaff, the lightweight material feeling too spacey and touchy-feel-good in this era of heightened senses. “Santa Barbara” is painfully middle of the road light rock, and the litany of challenges and peacenik proclamations that makes up “Always on My Mind” is held back by its own ambitions—while it makes for a strong, impassioned statement to close the album, it rambles on for a full eight-and-a-half minutes, losing the listener somewhere around the middle.

Strangely, this display of naiveté might be the thing that makes this album compelling in spite of itself.  On the one hand, its snapshot of a social activist in happier times seems both quaint and appealing, and there’s some nostalgia for those feelings as you listen to Dumbing Up.  At the same time, these songs add another voice to the fray, one that would have been welcome in the years that Wallinger struggled through his recovery.  That second feeling also inspires some hope for the future of World Party.  The targets having since been clarified, it’s entirely possible that the next effort—which would introduce new, more timely material—might address the present in the same sharply incisive manner as a “Ship of Fools” once did.

So while Dumbing Up might not reclaim a peace-pop crown for Wallinger, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have this re-release putting World Party back on audiences’ radar.  Fans will want to purchase it for the feature-packed bonus DVD and to support future efforts towards the beautiful dream.  Everyone is definitely encouraged to pick up the reissues of the old albums, finally wrested from control of EMI and available for purchase and download once more.  And hopefully, if World Party is back, Wallinger will return with something far more vital to say.

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