Although Skunk Anansie's first record in ten years is not their best effort, they still remind us how much they trampled over others in musical superiority.
Skunk Anansie made a very strong mark on my young Christian and impressionable mind back in 1995 when I witnessed a crazy bald black lesbian screaming to the camera: “They’re selling Jesus again / They’re selling Jesus again / They want your soul and your money / Your blood and your votes / They’re selling Jesus again”. I was floored, and felt immediately guilty for having listened to such blasphemy. Needless to say, I quickly ran to the nearest HMV and picked up Skunk Anansie’s major label debut record, Paranoid & Sunburnt. From then on, my obsession with this motley crew band has been an empowering and strange love affair. They were (and continue to be) one of my favourite bands from the '90s, inspiring racial and sexual diversity. Skin was the most fascinating front person in a long while, and the band’s mix of progressive hard rock with occasional dancehall-infused dub was refreshing and intense. Skunk Anansie was kicking ass and taking names right from the beginning.
Their sound is often times cataclysmic, making you feel like the ground beneath you is going to rupture and swallow you whole. However, in the land of cool rock music dominated by pretentious and wussy men, Skunk Anansie went largely unnoticed in the US, even though they enjoyed moderate mainstream success in their native UK. Imagine my surprise when shortly after promoting their third (and best) album, Post Orgasmic Chill, they announced that Skunk Anansie was no longer going to be producing music together! I was quite saddened. Shortly thereafter, Skin released two massively disappointing and underwhelming train wrecks within three years of each other: 2003s awful Fleshwounds and 2006s slightly better Fake Chemical State. The jump from inspiring and kick-ass hard rock to lame R&B inspired pop/rock was shocking.
Along comes 2009's reunion of Skunk Anansie, and with it their first recordings in just under a decade. The three new tracks featured on their “best of” collection, Smashes and Trashes, were a nice surprise, even if the track “Squander” felt like a b-side from Skin’s Fleshwounds. The wonderfully titled Wonderlustre is their first full-length record in ten years, and upon first listen, it's a little disheartening. One can’t help but wonder if Skunk Anansie has fallen into that trap of once reverent '90s bands reuiniting to offer substandard music, only to tarnish their past greatness. These reunions generally occur shortly after failed attempts at solo careers -- does anyone remember Billy Corgan’s TheFutureEmbrace, or Courtney Love’s America’s Sweetheart? But unlike recent attempts at culture significance by Hole, Smashing Pumpkins, and Stone Temple Pilots, Skunk Anansie have reunited all original members, making Wonderlustre an official new album, not just a re-wrapped solo effort like the aforementioned bands.
The impression Wonderlustre gives on first rotation is a rather watered down version of their once tight and tough sound. Skunk Anansie were always prone to throwing in the odd sadomasochistic ballad now and again, but never did that mellowness dominate an entire record. The ballads came almost out of necessity due to the hard-edged intensity of the other tracks; as if they needed to catch their breath before they collapsed from exhaustion. However, on Wonderlustre the in-your-face progressive rock is noticeably absent, and is instead replaced by relatively mid-tempo numbers and '90s rock ballads. Gone are the crunches of the superior “Charlie Big Potato”, or the vehement threat of “On My Hotel TV” or “I Can Dream”. What we hear is a more mature '90s band, gracing the airwaves again with the sound that propelled them into stardom in the first place: 1996s “Hedonism (Just Because You Feel Good)” from their breakout record Stoosh. While that album toned down the intensity of their debut, it managed to reveal another side of Skunk Anansie that most suspected didn’t exist, a heart-breaking vulnerability. Ten years later, this musical direction feels a little calculated, almost as if they are banking on listeners intuitively connecting them to that solid hit 14 years prior.
Thankfully, not all of Wonderlustre is caked through sappy ballads. The magnificent S&M-inspired lead single “My Ugly Boy” reminds us just how intimidating and dominating Skin can be as a front woman, while she sings: “The cheaper the face I love it / Rough but beautiful / And wherever he likes to go the dirtiest girls will show / The sweeter the ways I love him / Warm but beautiful/ ’Cause wherever he likes to go the freakiest boys will blow / Blown away / My ugly boy / My sweetest toy”. Skin’s lyrics are in top form, which is a massive relief after the horrid lyrical diarrhea we were subject to on Fleshwounds and Fake Chemical State. I was afraid she would never recover, or that perhaps the most biting and poetic lyrics from Skunk Anansie’s catalogue were written by one of her bandmates. The newly rejuvenated lyrics are a welcome change from the usual hard rock trite we’ve been experiencing as of late from bands like Billy Talent.
One of the highlights of Skunk Anansie was the guarantee that they would chime in on the recent political dealings across the globe and offer a socialist anthem to those who sought some creative backing to their ideals. The politics are left relatively untouched on Wonderlustre. The band is seemingly preferring to focus more on the personal, and after such a long break no one can blame them for wanting to dabble with the fun of rock rather than the political -- we all know how musicians are treated these days when they pepper their music with political thought (*cough*Dixie Chicks*cough*). People don’t want to hear politics in their music, and so Skunk Anansie are stepping lightly around this theme with their newly recovered career. No one can really blame them for this, but we can miss it.
What has become increasingly clear the more times this record spins itself through my headphones is that it gets better and better each time. Surprises like “You’re Too Expensive” and “Talk Too Much” that sounded cheap and pandering are now welcome inclusions. Although there are too many ballads on this record, they are much tighter then they ever have been before. For proof, one need only listen to “My Love Will Fall” with its atmospheric bass opening that quickly jumps into its swelling refrain where Skin sings: “I curse my love for you”. It’s a great track and reminds us just how much Skunk Anansie rocked on every conceivable level. Image and text align perfectly for this oddly assembled band. They are a band for the people, through and through, and although Wonderlustre is not their strongest effort, it’s still miles ahead of the rock albums we’ve been subjected to in the ten years they have been absent. What Wonderlustre unexpectedly manages to accomplish is to leave you with the feeling that a once dying genre has been shocked back to life. The music scene is better for having Skunk Anansie in it again.