The titular pun, allusive and mocking, literate and “classic” in at least a double sense, typifies this pioneering post-punk band’s approach. Howard Devoto’s adenoidal delivery, his poetic or satirical lyrics, and his direction of a band bent on keyboard-guitar dominated aggravation make their fifth album (the first in nearly three decades since their heyday), as consistent as ever. Whether this wins them new fans as much as woos old ones remains uncertain. Magazine’s a group committed to an uncompromising attitude transmitted through an arch form of dense New Wave, while backing ex-Buzzcocks founder Devoto’s willfully theatrical, petulant, or defiant poses.
“Do the Meaning” begins with a hint of Public Image Ltd’s guitar swirl, its riff connecting with a keyboard-driven sound reminiscent of their standard style. A chunkier, stuttering guitar characterized the innovations of late original guitarist John McGeoch; his successor Noko — who paired with a solo Devoto in Luxuria — remains faithful to this direction. This continues on the next track, appropriately named “Other Thematic Material”. However, Devoto’s preference for a sparer, theatrical mood often slowed the pace of Magazine’s albums. Here, “The Worst of Progress” follows this form. Discordant tones fill many songs, even if “Hello Mister Curtis (With Apologies)” integrates piano chords that hint at George Benson’s version of “On Broadway” of all tunes (at least to these ears).
Despite Devoto’s mannered articulation and phrasing, “Physics” manages to be nearly a ballad by comparison with most of this album. “Religion, it wasn’t meant for everyone” becomes the refrain, and no lyric sheet’s needed to make that message out (I didn’t receive one with my download). “Happening in English” fits into the band’s typical early ’80s style, with some nods to a more tribal percussion from that era’s John Doyle, who returns on drums. Dave Formula, their loyal keyboardist, contributes the most to keeping this reunion record close to its predecessors. He joins with Noko’s lively guitar and new recruit Jon “Stan” White on bass (although the talents of original member Barry Adamson are missed) for “Holy Dotage”, which is the album’s punchiest song.
The noir shuffle of “Of Course Howard (1979)” evidently refers to some event back then, mixing a nearly spoken-word alteration of Devoto’s vocal registers into a menacing entry. Yet, as with other such Magazine tracks throughout the band’s career, this plods along and drags down the album’s trajectory. Their albums always stop and go, hurry and dawdle, and true to this erratic form, after 30 years, this one follows suit.
By its title, “Final Analysis Waltz” may anticipate this judgment. Despite a jerky guitar with lilting piano and bass interplay that gave many of the band’s songs their distinctive sonic stamp, this fails to keep a listener’s interest for almost five minutes. “The Burden of a Song” again appears well-chosen as a name, for this fights against the ennui incorporated into its title by a welcome brush with a snappier melody, if in shards.
Tired and battered, the breakdown of “Blisterpack Blues” reminds me of the band’s nearly unrecognizable, crawling, collapsing cover version of Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”; it drags down the album to its close. The willful direction-as-misdirection of this solid record (if unspectacular by earlier standards of such a creative band) typifies their refusal to conform to expectations. Unless they are those of any listener fond of this Manchester-based quintet, who from their first single, “Shot by Both Sides” in 1978, never fit into any mold except the ones they broke and melted and remade.