Post-punk band A Certain Ratio deserve a chance to speak about the year 1982 (if that is what they do on their new record). That was the year they released two albums, expanding their sound and bringing more funk to their recordings. An integral part of Manchester’s Factory Records, the band has continued more or less since then, using their groove to explore new avenues. After a studio hiatus through most of the start of this century, the group returned with a box set and a new album ACR Loco. That seems to have kicked off a new era, and while A Certain Ratio have titled their new album 1982, it offers more than a simple look back, traveling forward through time as if taking stock.
“SAMO” opens 1982 by backtracking a little more, to the late 1970s, with its reference to the graffiti tag used by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz. The song carries a distinct connection to Blondie‘s 1980 hit “Rapture” thanks to its overall feel, the spoken word segue (including a nod to Fab Five Freddy), and the appearance of new vocalist Ellen Beth Abdi. The album progresses – neither progressively nor reductively – through time from there. Rapper Chunky joins the group for “Waiting on a Train”, a dreamy throwback enlivened by the MC’s verses and the precise flourishes throughout.
After that, A Certain Ratio bounce around as they please, usually at their best when at their funkiest. The connection to 1982 dissipates, although the album doesn’t entirely leave the era’s club scene. Hints of disco creep in, but always with a bit of an edge. Jazz swirls through the record, changing tone and expectations continually. A Certain Ratio’s ability to stay coherent while traveling in various directions remains impressive. “Afro Dizzy” brings in some Afrobeat while giving Abdi a central role. The synths quickly push the track toward cosmic territory, a spacey dance number exactly in line with A Certain Ratio’s joy of getting just a bit out of line, rhythmic rigidity upended by atmospheric twists.
Single “Holy Smoke” goes for authentic throwback funk, echoing Rick James but using a saxophone squall and Abdi’s vocals to keep a fresh twist on it. While elements of homage and pastiche run throughout 1982, A Certain Ratio never lose themselves in the past, and the group’s vibrancy shines throughout the record.
1982 loses considerable steam over its final two tracks. The sunny “Tier 3” lasts only three and a half minutes, but with its wandering noodling, it feels like twice that. The closing number, “Ballad of ACR”, splits into three segments, telling the A Certain Ratio’s story in different modes. None of the segments quite work, although the clear pop of the first and third stretches come close, surpassing the forced experimentalism of the middle section. The pair makes an unfortunate finish to an otherwise strong and energetic record.
A Certain Ratio have always been willing to fiddle with their sound. That they do so here (for good or bad) doesn’t surprise, and it fits with their rejuvenated start to this decade, still full of ambition since the 1980s.