Gang of Four’s place in the rock ‘n’ roll history books has long been settled, but that hasn’t kept the defining post-punk band from trying to add new chapters to a story full of unlikely twists and turns. So the first thing you’re likely to wonder about Content, even before whether it’s worthy of classic Gang of Four or not, is what its reason for being is: With a legacy that’s already set in stone, just why do principals Andy Gill and Jon King keep coming back for more, especially since their landmark albums Entertainment! and Solid Gold don’t feel dated 30 years down the line? Indeed, the Go4 back catalog of Marxist-pop anthems are still fresher and harder hitting than the work of so many bands who cribbed from ’em over the past three decades, be it the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ aggro funk-rock, Rage Against the Machine’s agit-pop, or Franz Ferdinand’s post-post-punk.
While one could hardly blame Gill and King if they were indulging their inner capitalists to continue their Sisyphean chase after the fame and fortune that has eluded them, you get the idea that there’s something more to Content than just cashing in while they still can. Indeed, the effort and energy Gang of Four channels into its first album in over 15 years suggest that the group is still digging deeper to get at some truth behind the ideologies and social mores they unrelentingly attack. Steadfast but quixotic after all these years, Gill and King have literally put everything they have into their new record, funding the production of the project through online donations from fans in exchange for everything from vials of their blood to a helicopter ride with them en route to Glastonbury. If nothing else, they’re keeping up with the times, putting their money where their mouth in a clever, creative way that only disillusioned vets who’ve been burned by the music industry — but keep wanting to change it — can.
And it’s clear on Content that time hasn’t passed Gill and King by just yet: The new album is anything but your typical vanity reunion effort, but rather an honest-to-goodness comeback that basically reboots the righteous indignation and cutting humor of their late ’70s/early ’80s heyday for a digital age. While they could probably get by on muscle memory alone, it’s evident from the bristling, hard-charging first track “She Said ‘You Made a Thing of Me’,” that they’re not merely going through the motions, as the partners-in-crime apply their acerbic wit and keen intellect to rail against the objectification of women, as King’s chorus of “She said you made a thing of me / What I am is what you see” makes obvious. It goes to show again how Gang of Four proves that the most effective pop sloganeering could use an attention-grabbing tune, as the interplay of the chanted vocals and slicing riffs evoke Entertainment!‘s “Natural’s Not in It” in form and, um, content. In Gang of Four’s case, demystifying ideology can also create its own kind of trance.
Much of Content really is everything you could hope for when it comes to a project that taps into nostalgia without simply wallowing in it. As sacrilegious as it may seem to say it, “Who Am I?” brings to mind Go4’s funky punky finest like Solid Gold‘s “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time” by getting you to think about social contradictions and alienation at the same time you’re grooving to its heavy rhythms and chugging guitars. You could probably earn a cultural studies degree from listening to lyrics like “All the shoppers asleep / And the cameras lie / Who can lie / When everything is true?,” as a sneering King comes off like Jarvis Cocker imitating him. Likewise, “Never Pay for the Farm” is the kind of social satire you can still only get from Go4, riffing off the steely guitar lines of “I Found That Essential Rare” to offer a searing take on the absurdities of everyday life.
What’s more, these songs show that what separates Gang of Four from other politically minded bands is a sincere commitment to what could be that’s the soft underbelly of its cynicism, the belief that there’s something more to life that makes all the critique worth it. Nowhere is that thesis more poignantly explored than on “I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face”, a slowed-down number (at least for Go4) that’s sympathetic and almost touching, even as it launches into its own polemic on modern relationships. When King almost croons the title line, Gang of Four shows how romance is actually part and parcel of its angry aesthetic. The allegorical “A Fruitfly in the Beehive” finds Gang of Four smoother and more pensive than ever, though you would hardly say the group is mellowed out, with its bristling, jittery sound just bubbling underneath the surface. Ironically enough, it’s this older, wiser, mid-tempo punk that gives the best measure of Gang of Four’s vital signs, a twist on a time-tested formula that confirms how a persistent sense of idealism is what long-term struggle should be all about.
But as has often been the case with their restless artistry, Gill and King can push their pop experimentation too far for their own good — anyone who has heard their inexplicable foray into what they must’ve thought was radio-friendly punk-soul on 1983’s Hard can attest to that. While it’s admirable that these old dogs try to learn some new tricks, it’s when they get away from what they do best that Content goes astray, particularly on the second half of the album. The overstuffed, over-the-top “I Party All the Time” is almost like a parodic version of a Go4 rager: A little bit bad funk-punk, a little bit obnoxious rap-rock, the piece is a collection of the group’s signature moves after they’ve been recycled and misappropriated by the bands that came after Gang of Four. And when King scoffs “I’m a phony” in the background, the song’s too blatant and heavy-handed pointing out the foibles of human behavior. Even more egregious is “It Was Never Going to Turn Out Too Good”, which employs vocoder to express the robot-like exploitation of the worker, if you want to take how Gill describes it seriously. Except that it’s hard to keep a straight face hearing it, since the bad Auto-Tune-like vocals get in the way of hearing out any profound social statement they’re trying to make. While the medium and the message are usually in sync for Gang of Four, they’re completely out of whack for once on the track.
Still, you can’t help but give Gill and King credit for going all out, not worrying about where the excesses and new gimmicks take them. In the end, Content works because it reminds you why Gang of Four is a group that’s revolutionary in all senses of the word, as a band that does things its own way on its own terms, expectations and reputations be damned. That contrarian attitude is something that has stood the test of time and a good enough reason for Gang of Four to continue to exist, whether the book on the band is closed or not.