Never so pretty as Content or as clinical as their earliest efforts, this latest album from Gang of Four marks an ugly and interesting new era for the band.
What Happens Next, the title of Gang of Four’s latest album, is a statement instead of a question. It’s also a judgment and so a major change of style for a band that has long avoided making bald generalizations or launching agitprop musical cocktails. Always content to observe from a neutral standpoint and so to expose, without unintentionally diluting, all of the insanity inherent in modern consumer culture, the band once preferred to keep their words as angular as their music. While their predecessors and peers tried to embody the chaos and ugliness of post-war England in their grimy noise, the Gang favored a musical landscape that sounded neurotic and antiseptic. Guitars were given to start and stop with jarring frequency or the main vocal line was backed by a contradictory monologue whispered just behind it. The bass and the guitar didn't support each other so much as duel, opposing voices in a kind of dialectic struggle. These idiosyncrasies were the musical equivalent of the nervous tics and guilty consciences of each songs’ subjects, compulsions meant to fulfill desires these nameless people didn’t even know they were given to. Even 2011’s Content, with its glitzy production and speedy, straight-forward trajectory, stayed relatively true to the formula on all levels. It was clean, it was streamlined, it was aloof and clever. It was a Gang of Four for the modern listener, a pristine product as seductive as the elements of modern culture it observed.
What Happens Next is dirty, noisy, cluttered; a very deliberate break with the Gang’s history. More like industrial music than punk and more like an Orwellian polemic than a psychological profile, this is the new face of Gang and Four, for better and for worse. Blame that on the departure of founding member Jon King, whose absence here is as pronounced as his presence on earlier albums and whose normally analytic lyrics have been replaced with the kinds of broad strokes generalizations that the band avoided like anthrax. “They make black and white out of complexity," the singer opines in “Obey the Ghost”, not realizing at the same time that this, along with a thousand other lyrics, adapt a similar broad strokes approach to criticism. Not that this is all to the bad.
While such crass generalization might have not meshed well with the band’s mechanical earlier styling, they complement the smothering sounds of What Happens Next in ways that indicate design instead of accident. There’s nothing subtle or nuanced in observing as Andy Gill, the last remaining member of the band, does that many religions think of “free will (as) heresy”, especially when he never bothers to identify which faith he might be referring to. But it couples with the music to paint an image of these “dark ages” as coal black as the synthesizers and as oppressive as the weight of those guitars. None of the many, many lines in “Broken Talk” does as well as the classic “At Home He’s a Tourist” in capturing its paranoid subject’s anxiety and alienation. The lyrics are too abstract, too removed. None so evocative as the image of the man in “…Tourist” clutching at the condom in his shirt pocket, but they still succeed by dent of brute force and a coupling with a high octane dance beat that crunches where “…Tourist” marched.
It’s a clumsy method, observable in just about every element of the music -- this is a cluttered record, make no mistake, so much that even at just under 40 minutes it feels sprawling and claustrophobic both, like a megalopolis sealed under a low-hanging dome -- but it works despite itself. Unlike King, who seemed to fancy songs as stripped down and streamlined as possible, Gill goes in for something bloated, for songs stuffed with guest singers and effects and instruments run through so many filters that the end result is something that is not too many steps removed from noise. There’s an element of the deliberate about this: the album’s concern is with the kind of static, literal and figurative, which saturates life in modern London. Sometimes this white noise manifests as the competitive slogans of the corporate world (“Isle of Dogs,” “Dead Souls”), sometimes as the voice of patriotic promises unfulfilled (“England’s in My Bones”) or as the domineering rhetoric of progress (“The Dying Rays”), but whatever the form it’s never absent. There's no room to breathe and very little room to listen. Even the slowest of songs, “The Dying Rays”, is underlined by so many concurrent layers that it feels frantic despite its languid pace and Herbert Gronemeyer’s moan. Those numbers with a fleeter tempo, meanwhile, move at such speeds they don’t invite as much as compel the listener to dance along behind them. “Stranded” matches beat for beat the breathless attitude exhibited by its singer, a man intent on keeping up with the fashions his corporate lifestyle demands of him.
What’s remarkable is that this ceaseless pace is never wearying. It might be, if the songs had all sounded too much the same or if they had been ordered differently, but the album is staggered precisely so that no sound dominates too long. Individual songs might be overlong or tiring -- “First World Citizen” plays like an afterthought and does nothing to relive the palpable dread of “Obey the Ghost” or prepare for the nervous intensity of “Stranded” –- and there’s a strange sense that every song wants to be a dance number, but it never becomes a chore to listen to. It even avoids the sin that many earlier Gang (notably Solid Gold) albums fell prey to: it never tapers off into something ponderous.
What it does not do, sadly, is ever rise to the level of fun that the best of the Gang’s earliest work did. It’s an even, solid album but there are few standout tracks, no moment where listening becomes compulsive, a matter of finding out what, exactly, Gill has up his sleeve or what strange rhythmic disruptions he’ll introduce into each song. It’s more workmanlike than anything before it, and so stubborn that songs often miss perfect opportunities to expand a bit. “Obey the Ghost” might have done with an opening up towards the end just to emphasize how dreadful and how powerful this “ghost” is, for example. This keeps What Happens Next constrained in ways that might be thematically appropriate but which are also disappointing. It’s hard to weigh out music so that it balances between intelligent and the danceable as the old Gang of Four did. Gill has made an excellent effort of it here but there’s some reapportioning that needs to be done.