Crime & the City Solution: American Twilight
The '80s post-punk act's first album in 22 years reveals a talent for dark, mournful balladry -- and a bitter fascination with America.
Call it the year of the comeback. We haven’t made it to April yet, and already 2013 has played witness to some of the most unlikely resurrections this side of Chinese Democracy. A week into the new year, David Bowie announced his first studio album since 2003’s Reality. Not one to be outdone, Justin Timberlake dropped “Suit and Tie” a few days later (with a full-length following two months behind). Then came My Bloody Valentine, surprising the Internet on a Saturday night in February with the two-decades-in-the-making follow-up to Loveless. Even Trent Reznor, America’s favorite angsty
teen 47-year-old, joined the party, announcing a brand new Nine Inch Nails lineup and summer arena tour.
Arguably the most weirdly unexpected comeback in recent memory, Crime & the City Solution’s reboot following a 22-year absence hasn’t exactly attracted media fanfare. Not in the United States, at least, where the Australian-by-way-of-Berlin group is now based. Who can be surprised? The post-punk outfit’s most high-profile cameo arrived in 1987, when they could be spotted performing “Six Bells Chime” to a darkened club of romantics in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. (Nick Cave’s own appearance in the same film steals the spotlight an hour later, sharing a member in Mick Harvey.) The last time the post-punk outfit released an album (the surprisingly ambitious if disjointed Paradise Discotheque), it was 1990; the Soviet Union still existed, and Justin Timberlake was in fifth grade. Frontman Simon Bonney has filled some of the gap with a few country-inspired solo efforts, but his music career has lain dormant since the late 1990s.
To its credit, American Twilight, the band’s long-awaited fifth full-length, avoids mimicking the harsh, cerebral post-punk they mastered on 1986’s Room of Lights. Nor does it mine the gratuitous eclecticism of Paradise Discotheque. At its best, American Twilight emphasizes dark, mournful classic rock and balladry, caked with bitter Americana. On the rare misstep, the band trails into aimless blues-rock -- but recovers for a tremendous closing arc.
The album finds Cold War-era nucleus Simon Bonney, Bronwyn Adams, and Alex Hacke joined by visual artist Danielle de Picciotto, Cat Power drummer Jim White, guitarist David Eugene Edwards, bassist Troy Gregory, and keyboardist Matthew Smith. It’s a staggeringly large lineup, and Twilight is sonically rich enough to warrant it, brimming with horns, keys, backing vocals, spoken word samples, and swelling string arrangements that take the lead on the album’s remarkably pretty closing cut, “Streets of West Memphis”. “American boy, in alien form / Flag on his shoulders is frayed and torn," Bonney sings on that track, his weary growl a fitting counterpart for de Picciotto’s smooth harmonies. “Land of the free”, the verse continues, “illusion of choice." Quietly scathing (references to thievery and fiction as history swirl with sarcastic nods to “level playing fields” and “false paradise on the streets of Memphis”), it’s a solid indicator of Bonney’s lyrical fascination with America and its myriad discontents.
In the late ‘80s, Crime was as entrenched in Berlin as Einstürzende Neubauten or Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, both of whom the band shared members and -- to some extent -- a musical aesthetic with. But 25 years later, the members have moved to Detroit and titled their album American Twilight. “A whole lotta birds in the sky above," Bonney snarls on the bluesy rave-up of a title track, another tribute to the “land of the free”. “Looks like hawks and you’re the dove."
Nothing is quite as disarmingly affecting as “Streets of West Memphis”, but “My Love Takes Me There” and “Beyond Good and Evil” come close. The former is a driving minor-key rocker, buoyed by occasional horn blasts and an unexpectedly delicate bridge; the latter merges eastern flourishes with one of the band’s lushest choruses yet. Leaping into tenor range on the bridge, Bonney suddenly sounds a bit like Roger Daltrey. Impressively, his band’s newfound penchant for drama follows his lead.
Sequenced side-by-side, “Domina” and “The Colonel” mark the album’s mini-epics, hearkening back to Paradise Discotheque’s “The Last Dictator” suite. Only the latter falls a bit flat, a plodding six-and-a-half-minute buildup that never rewards the patience it demands. Twilight’s only other misstep is “Riven Man”, a rollicking blues workout that veers uncomfortably close to bar band territory.
American Twilight isn't quite perfect, but like recent efforts from Swans, it feels like the purest sort of reunion album -- one made not out of convenience or for money (these guys aren't exactly packing stadiums), but simply because the band felt like it and had music left to make. No one really asked for a Crime & the City Solution reunion -- it just felt right. Let’s hope it’s not another 22 years before the next one.