From the spring of 1994, while the UK was wrapped up in Britpop, the US rock scene pivoted away from grunge/alternative rock and entered an era of punk revivalism. Green Day and Offspring’s respective albums launched them into the stratosphere, while even uncompromising underground veterans NOFX and Bad Religion would score gold albums that year. As one of the originators of the dominant sounds of the moment, Buzzcocks were well-placed to capitalize on the shift. Instead, they had a relatively quiet year then took 1995 off from touring. 1996, however, saw them wrapped up within a wider wave of vintage punk acts returning to the stage. With the Damned mired in endless splits, the Clash never to return, Buzzcocks were the only big beast of punk still standing, and it made sense they would join Sex Pistols for the first date of their reunion tour.
In this promising moment, instead of allowing themselves to be subsumed within this nostalgia, Buzzcocks released their latest album, All Set. And then they were faced with disaster. A move to IRS Records, intended to give greater commercial reach to the album, backfired when the label collapsed a mere two weeks after the album’s release. Despite all PR and promotional efforts crashing to a sudden halt, the album saw success with critics. Listened to in the context of that time — alongside albums like Blur’s The Great Escape, Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? And the Verve’s A Northern Soul — All Set certainly represented another forward step for the band and one deserving of this opportunity for reappraisal.
Neill King joined the band fresh from engineering records by Green Day and Rancid, and from handling production for Menswear and Elvis Costello. Buzzcocks’ sound benefited from his involvement with the guitar riffs on a song like “What Am I Supposed to Do” standing out in sharply, allowing one to appreciate Shelley and Diggle’s deft hands for pop-punk properly. The band stretched out beyond their comfort zone, and the uniformity that marred Trade Test Transmissions was broken with a fine mid-album run of songs.
It starts with the hollow-toned, bass-led, and whispered verses of “Point of No Return”. The fine form continues with the out-and-out pop song “Hold Me Close”, where gritty guitar surges underpin each chorus. Finally, it emerges into the excellent “Kiss ‘n’ Tell” with its powerful intro and bounding verses underlying some shrewdly knowing lyrics. “I remember the times you wanted ten pence for a look — which you took.” Then, “power without guilt is like love without doubt, secrets will in time, find a way out — as a shout.” There’s even room for an acoustic guitar on album finale “Back With You”, a fine finisher where Diggle’s voice stands naked over strings, a psychedelic organ solo and a guitar reduced to hail.
It’s visible that the band were now a relatively equal partnership between Shelley and Diggle, with each providing distinct edges to Buzzcocks. First, Diggle’s deeper tone provides a pause from Shelley’s nasality — a yin-yang lending contrast across the album’s 13 tracks. Second, Diggle tends to pare lyrics down to several strong images then a major theme hammered home, well-exhibited on album highlight “Playing For Time”. Meanwhile, Shelley revels in developing an idea across multiple verses and twisting words from one part of a song to the next. Finally, Diggle is dwelling on themes of aging and universal uncertainty — as on “What Am I Supposed to Do” — while Shelley continues to mine a rich vein of comfort and discomfort feeling too much for others.
Everything one loves about Buzzcocks is here, but so are their more pedestrian tendencies. Songs, like “Some Kinda Wonderful” or “Give It to Me” echo 1960s bubblegum pop a little too closely. The latter song, and “Your Love”, were revivified obscurities from 1987’s Zip side-project and didn’t deserve the return. Likewise, the buoyancy of Shelley’s vocals sits oddly backed by the thrash of “What You Mean to Me”, the heaviest tune Buzzcocks had recorded since their reunion. There’s a downside to having nothing at stake, to sounding happy with one’s lot in life, but these are minor quibbles in an album that advanced on its functional predecessor.
Note: The numerical rating pertains to the individual album under review and not the full set.
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