There aren’t many musicians finding new and original manifestations of their creative muse several decades into their careers. Even David Bowie went into semi-retirement after a spell of frustrated efforts and trend-chasing during which he failed to locate a direction that might resonate with his audiences. It’s amazing that Buzzcocks were still releasing music by 2006, and that they were making a solid fist of it to boot. Buzzcocks were always the thinking man’s punk band of choice and seemed well aware of their status as the great survivors of punk’s golden age — without letting legacy dictate their on-vinyl presence. Buzzcocks’ set-lists by this point rested heavily on their pre-1981 back-catalog rather than their solid discography post-comeback. Still, outside of that crowd-pleasing live work, the albums from 1993 onward all had visibly higher ambitions.
Crashing right in with the album’s title track, Flat-Pack Philosophy never relents on the muscled-up sound Buzzcocks unleashed on their self-titled album of 2003. “Flat-Pack Philosophy” does have a rather lovely point at its core: “All of my hopes, dreams, and desires — assembly required. That’s flat-pack philosophy.” It’s a suggestion that forward-thinking wishes rather than backward-facing achievements or regrets are at the core of a life worth living. The song (and album)’s title, manages simultaneously to be a clever metaphor, a dig at the absence of craftsmanship in an IKEA-fied world, and a knowing self-depreciation given Shelley and Diggle are well aware they’ve been iterating forever on a magic formula they found in the 1970s.
What has always saved Buzzcocks from sleepwalking through albums like a punk rock Rolling Stones, is that they’ve never sounded like making music is a business obligation or cold calculation. Their core formula is a bittersweet joy, one that makes every posited conundrum sound like the thrill of being alive. “Soul Survivor” is an uproarious celebration of Diggle’s escape from a serious car accident in the ’70x, of Buzzcocks’ last-punks-standing achievement, as well as spitting in the eye of life itself. It also showcases this album’s more subtle match up of guitars and electronic effects: the final 20 seconds are overwhelmed by the chorus vocal exploding into pure pealing feedback. There’s a similarly effective touch on “Credit”, which begins with an encounter with a Tesco self-service till, before casting a sardonic eye over a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses list of status symbol purchasing.
Flat-Pack Philosophy is ultimately a modest triumph. There’s a cohesion and coherence to the album that never falls into repetition, and there are plentiful highlights. “Sell You Everything”, while its title might suggest similar concerns to “Credit”, takes a different tack, homing in on the regretful walk home post-night-out as the alcoholic doldrums start to kick in. There’s another apparent link-up on the album with “Reconciliation” and “Wish I Never Loved You” feeling like opposite ends of the same in-out-of-love Shelley has always queried and prodded. Meanwhile, “I’ve Had Enough” is the hard renunciation sandwiched in the middle. The only odd couple moment on the record is “God, What Have I Done” where a volcanic rumble fills out the song but is done few favors by Shelley’s inconsequential lyrical musing, which seems unworthy of the weighty backing or title.
The extras here are mostly straightforward garage rockers, but there are some real surprises as well. “Every Day And Every Night” is a mid-tempo ballad pitched against a warm semi-acoustic Indian summer of a song — given how strong Diggle and Shelley are as lyricists, it’s almost stubbornly perverse that there are no moments like this anywhere on the comeback albums. “Orion” meanwhile steps out of the pop realm into full-on guitar heroics and effects wailing away — a bare scratch of vocals bookended by minute-long instrumentals. The real curio is “Darker By the Hour”, a song recorded in 1998 for Last Days of the Post Office, a 12-minute film by Director Sarah Weatherall that emerged in 2001. Despite its sub-two-minute running time, it’s a fair encapsulation of Buzzcocks’ ethos but expressed via a different palette as downbeat emotion is buoyed by keening backing vocals and piano. I wish Buzzcocks post-2000 had spent more time in this vein, turning down the volume and amplifying feeling.