Chumbawamba: The Boy Bands Have Won

[29 September 2008]

By Charles A. Hohman

Mid-‘90s alt-rock is overdue for considerable revisionism. In the what-the-hell-do-we-know aftermath of grunge, labels were clamoring for whatever next-big-thing could, if not rake in the Nirvana millions, at least keep the already sagging industry afloat for another week. The inadvertent result was the greatest array of one-off radio confections since New Wave’s peak. It was littered with yawn-inducing MOR bores, sure (Tonic, Marcy Playground), but also a stream of only-in-the-‘90s ear candy, sometimes formulaic, often delightfully off-kilter. This was an era when the Butthole Surfers could top the rock radio chart, and when Fastball could go platinum and incur the ire of indie cognoscenti who would have loved Fastball 10 years prior or later.

And this was also the era when a decade-old British anarcho-punk outfit could score a fluke multi-format, MTV-approved smash, a drinking song ubiquitous at keggers and happy hours populated by the privileged on both sides of the pond. Such is the peculiar, precarious fate of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”, a controversial (at least among the band’s DIY purist fanbase) hit that was inescapable for nearly a year. But once the anything-goes bubble gave way to cock-waving nu-metal and unimaginative pop-punk, Chumbawamba returned to the margins alongside the groups and opinions they so proudly champion. 

Anyone who hasn’t paid attention to Chumbawamba since 1998—that is to say, most of the world—will be surprised, even slightly jarred, to hear the stripped-down folk songs they now traffic in. The Boy Bands Have Won features sounds and sentiments even more dated than its title. (Seriously, “boy bands” as embodiment of corporate fascism is a passé and foolish stance.) Take first single “Add Me”, a smug, nudging attack on online social networking sites. It’s a broad, demeaning character sketch of a basement-dwelling immature perv, the premise being that MySpace, Facebook, et al benefit only the basest, most predatory elements of human society. As such, the song is woefully out of touch, the uninformed critique of a grumpy old man whose only knowledge of such sites stems from sordid exposes in the Daily Mail.

“Add Me” is symptomatic of Boy Bands’ crippling weaknesses, and the assumptions that permeate too much musical agitprop: a self-righteous air of self-proclaimed moral superiority to less politically-minded pop music. “Sing About Love” is an unaccompanied three-part harmony lament over how Chumbawamba would like to record songs of romance and courtship, but there’s just too damned much injustice in the world to be bothered with trivial matters like getting laid and attaining personal happiness. But hey, when all that injustice is gone, then love songs will be something more than an irresponsible shirking of civic duty. Throughout Boy Bands, Chumbawamba repeatedly wags its collective finger at anyone who dares experience pleasure in such an oppressive world.

Chumbawamba seems to sincerely hope, if not actively think, that their music can change the world. That’s ironic, since “Tubthumping” achieved a wider audience, the kind necessary to make any sort of cultural impact, than any of these songs will. “Words Can Save Us” is an indistinct mission statement, one that embodies the kind of folkie naivete that was successfully refuted when Dylan went electric. The verbose song-by-song liner notes, a Chumbawamba signature, often contain more words than the songs themselves, explanations of inspirations and causes and back stories that provide more judgment than context. Elsewhere, there’s a tribute to Bertolt Brecht, the obligatory Maggie-Thatcher-was-evil song (seems a bit petty, at this point) and a dig at “Bono and his friends” (some of whom have done more good than Chumbawamba ever will), followed by a hacky pun at the Edge’s expense. But nothing is quite as horrid as “Charlie”, an airy ballad that recasts Charles Darwin as some folk hero who traveled “Over the river and over the sea / Through holy storm and thunder” to “question the almighty”. Equating Charles Darwin with Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan is a silly affront to the man’s achievements.

The album flows decently enough: 25-five tracks in under 50 minutes, with mostly spare, acoustic arrangements, some a capella, a few even based on traditional tunes. Many of the brief, minute to minute-and-a-half interludes feel like afterthoughts, songs too slight to make a statement, simple placeholders for the myriad ideas and points the band had neither time nor energy to flesh out or consider with nuance. And as with most folk music, the words are the point here (the cover makes that clear). The melodies are unobtrusive and unobjectionable, occasionally catchier than the band’s punk output. “El Fusillado” is almost fun, and “I Wish That They’d Sack Me” is almost gorgeous. But the cringeworthy moments, the various hypocrisies and pomposities, darken the bright spots, and the hollow, problematic pseudo-leftist rhetoric sticks in your gut far longer than even the most infectious hooks. There’s something touchingly antiquated about Chumbawamba’s defiance, but Boy Bands is too much lecture and not enough leisure.

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