In an age of band reunions where anything is possible, we now have the Pop Group’s first album in 35 years.
From the cover of the first Pop Group album in 35 years leers old Lord Kitchener, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday. But does he still want you after all this time, or is he now pointing his finger in scolding accusation? Out of place across multiple generations, stripped of any supposedly ennobling patriotic war effort to back him, he looks more likely out to get you than anything else.
“Out here on the perimeter nobody can hear you scream / Ah la-la la-la la-la la / A dictator’s wet dream”, taunts the title track. This is the paranoid half of perspective that Citizen Zombie takes, though the Pop Group do their fair share of finger pointing at everyone else as well. “You’ve got that brainwashed look / Of an alien abductee / Maybe your mind / Has been wiped clean”. It is a kind of idealism that doesn’t come from a sunny disposition. We are all complicit to some degree; the individual is not powerless, and we have a responsibility to contribute to the betterment of society.
The fact that Citizen Zombie came together at all is much less surprising than the fact that it is an energetically angry record. When the band’s unlikely reunion began in earnest with some festival appearances in 2010, singer Mark Stewart was soon speaking about the prospect of a new album, though it has taken until now for it to arrive. If the Pop Group were ever going to record again, a Hell Freezes Over cash-in was probably not going to be a central motivating factor.
However, there is something belligerently commercial about Citizen Zombie, most prominently the choice of producer, Paul Epworth. The 40-year-old Grammy winner known for his hits with Adele and a number of other actual pop pop groups like Florence and the Machine is nonetheless an avowed Pop Group fan. Having worked earlier in his career with tautly strung rock bands like Bloc Party, the Futureheads, and Maximo Park, the pairing isn’t entirely incongruous on paper either. Considering how much distance sits between Citizen Zombie and their last studio record, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, Epworth’s admiration for the Pop Group was likely a contributing factor to them retaining so much of their confrontational looseness.
The Pop Group’s sound on Citizen Zombie is considerably bigger, but not necessarily tighter. Their careening funk remains agile and prone to sudden outbursts. The ample space between Gareth Sager’s guitar and the rhythm section of bassist Dan Catsis and drummer Bruce Smith on Y cuts like “Words Disobey Me” and “The Boys from Brazil”, however, has been filled in with layers of backing vocals and synthesizers. At times, they also perhaps seem keen to make up for being out of the game for so long by incorporating bits and pieces of pop culture from the interim generations. “Mad Truth” sways with a Madchester vibe, dusted with optimistic rhyming simplifications like “time to make a stand” and “the future’s in your hands”. Later, Renton’s unforgettable opening voice-over from Trainspotting is recast in “Nations”: “Choose a fucking big television / Choose a starter home / Choose your friends / Choose leisurewear and fucking matching luggage”.
The vitriol directed toward ”nations of couch potatoes chained to their TV screens” might come across as a little dated, but replace “TV” in that lyric with a smartphone or tablet and the ills of society seem remarkably consistent. The ruthless self-interest and capitalism-run-amok of the ‘00s bubble and the Great Recession that brought it crashing down was surely déjà vu for the Pop Group and other UK bands in the post-punk wave who came up in dire economic straits in the '70s, then were forced to look on as Margaret Thatcher and her cohort dismantled industry and decimated labor unions in the '80s. It is no surprise, then, to see Anonymous’ slogan get a shout-out in “Nowhere Girl”: “Because we are legion / We are strong / We have the faith / To carry on”.
“There’s wolves in the throne room / Insect royalty / Creating hyper-crisis / In this age of anxiety”, Stewart proclaims in “The Immaculate Deception”, shrieking the last line repeatedly to hammer the rusty nail home. Citizen Zombie might give a pessimistic appraisal of the current state of the world, but the Pop Group didn’t come out of too-early retirement just to be doomsayers. Even if it takes a miracle to turn things around, well, they sound sincere when they declare “this is the age of miracles”. In the age of band reunions, this particular one might even count as a little miracle itself.