A tired return sees a once chaotic and frenzied band try to force the "hard-rock" schtick that made them great.
There was little fanfare when Skunk Anansie announced their return to the musical landscape with 2009’s retrospective singles compilation Smashes and Trashes. The album failed to reach gold status in the UK as did all their previous efforts, and peaked at number 74 on the charts. Soon following was a brand new release, Wonderlustre, that didn’t make quite the same impact that they may have been hoping to make. Besides a nice, refreshing return from a band missed in the musical landscape, the choices in songs and production, besides the fantastic “My Ugly Boy”, seemed safe and almost mainstream. Needless to say, the album didn’t quite pack the punch Skunk Anansie may have been hoping for.
Juxtaposed against Wonderlustre, “I Will Break You”, the album opener on their latest release Black Traffic, is the hard-edge that fans were missing from Skunk Anansie–but unfortunately for them, the punch feels a little more forced than in previous efforts, lacking the passion and sincerity of tracks like “Charlie Big Potato” or “The Skank Heads”. The sentiments of lines like “Don't try to humble me I'm badass to the bone / I been where you ain't seen so shut up with that tone / Don't try to mess with me I'll train you like a hound / I'll fill up all your bees till honey licks the ground” feel incredibly hokey and a little out of place coming from the mouth of a 45 year old. Has there been no anger management or psychotherapy in the last ten years?
Honestly, Black Traffic feels like a forced hard-rock response to some of the critiques lobbed at the band after the release of the mild, but heartfelt Wonderlustre. It’s a bizarre turn from a band that seemed so defiant and flippant about what outsiders think of their unique approach to rock music. And although tracks like “Sad, Sad, Sad” grow on you in time, others like the lead-in single “I Believed In You” unfortunately do not. The track is a poignant one about disillusionment and realizing those you idolized can also let you down, but set against a tired track with pretty predictable melodic and chord structures, it feels completely flat. So, when Skin sings: “I believed in you / Well, I was wrong / I believed you’d make me better / I was wrong / I believed you’d shine your light and save my world / Like Superman or God / I believed in you / Well, I was wrong”, it feels flat and uninspired. Moreover, when the second verse hits with the lines: “Will you do me the favor? / Go slit your skinny throat / Let your blood flow freely / So all your boys can choke / As I rise to defeat you / On revolution role / Where your rules and your failures / Will show” you begin to think that Skin herself is the one with the issues, guilty of too quickly putting people on a pedestal. They’ve had political tracks in the past, but “I Believed In You” (if it is in fact politically motivated) pales greatly in the shadow of the far superior “Selling Jesus” from their 1995 debut Paranoid & Sunburnt.
It’s unfortunate that such a wonderfully diverse and evocative band like Skunk Anansie have produced such a lack luster album that pretty much repeats itself over and over and over again. Tracks like “I Will Break You”, “Sad, Sad, Sad”, “I Believed in You”, and “Satisfied?” are practically indistinguishable from one another. And the power in which they are attempting to deliver their message never truly culminates into anything substantial, clever, or provocative. The big lead-up in “Satisfied?” crescendos to Skin singing: “Well, it feels like today / I’m gonna lose / I’ve got to choose / Ya, it feels like today / I’m gonna lose / So all I want to say / is ‘Fuck You!’” Wow. That’s powerful stuff. If you’re a pubescent 14 year old child trying to revolt against “unfair” parents.
This isn’t to say that all of Black Traffic is a wash. There are some pretty nice tracks on there, but nothing as strong as the previous peaks that the band has hit with “My Ugly Boy”, “Hedonism”, “Secretly”, or “Charity”. “Our Summer Kills the Sun” is a nice change of pace, but the chorus flattens the build up of a wonderful verse. “I Hope You Get to Meet Your Hero” is nice, but reminiscent of tracks like “You’ll Follow Me Down” only less effective, and “Drowning” feels like a leftover b-side from Skin’s embarrassing solo albums—even though it’s incredibly pop-centric and probably the most listenable tune on the entire album.
Ultimately, Black Traffic feels like a mess that attempted to be something intricate, involved and cohesively sound, but comes across as tired and forced. Relying too heavily on previous tricks that made them semi-famous, the band seems to be struggling to find the new direction that their music is going to take. After two sub-par albums, post-breakup, under their belt, it’s hard not to think that they made a mistake taking such a long hiatus at the time when they were at their creative peaks.