A decade into the comeback, it would have been easy for Buzzcocks to rest on their laurels. Instead, they pulled a surprise on Modern. The core template was still in place, the overall chirpiness remained unsullied, but the instrumental palette was neatly refreshed. It was a mark of talent that they did so without throwing away the distinct traits which made them Buzzcocks.
Song after song comes edged with intriguing touches. As an example, “Why Compromise” (one of the unused songs from the 1991 demo) features a stuttering guitar riff mirrored by a Morse code bleeping and a gurgling bass that stalks throughout the song. Shelley leans into a theatrical delivery that sells the song and its sage and thoughtful kōans. Diggle’s “Don’t Let the Car Crash” is one of the best songs of the entire Buzzcocks’ revival. The song develops through several significantly different passages from the tension-filled wavering doppler-effect of the first verse, then the big signature choruses, a second verse graced with synthesizers, and then the chattering arpeggios that hook the ear on the third. There’s no fall off as the album develops either. The final run of four songs from “Turn of the Screw” through closer “Choices” beats the album’s solid opening spell because of strong lyrical conceits, effective delivery, neat tech-flourishes, and ripping punk hooks.
Most of the songs here use a processed effect to tweak the introduction to a song then splice it to a solid pop-punk tune: “Soul on a Rock” is a perfect example. “Doesn’t Mean Anything” is the song that takes things furthest with verses reduced to a shifting, surging weave of vocal layers, and the choruses left as the only unaffected and straightforward element. As an intriguing sidebar, a year later, Diggle would release Some Reality, a solo album showing off his mod credentials. So it’s interesting that by this point, he was comfortable sub-dividing interests and aspects of his talents given his songs on Modern are the most laden with technology. A more subtle winner on the album is “Rendezvous”, which loads its lyrical journey with good lines (“Before I knew, we had reached your stop / I blurted out something obscene”) that would have made it a standout back in the post-punk past too.
To their credit, surveying this new box-set in its entirety, it’s remarkable how rarely Buzzcocks make an outright misstep — though obviously consistency comes with its own challenges. I will say that “Phone” is one of the few songs anywhere across these eight discs that makes my teeth grate. The Casio pre-set beat isn’t the issue; it’s the cheesy guitar parts and lyrical delivery that give it an unflattering touch of cod-reggae. The pre-set that does pose problems at certain times on Modern is Shelley’s falling back into the same whimsical unlucky in love character that was winning in his early 20s but can wear thin at age 44. On “Thunder of Hearts” or “Under the Sun”, his knack for a specific image that captures a universal feeling goes a bit astray. Instrumentally, while either would have been a serviceable diversion on Trade Test Transmissions, amid the changed-up quality of songs on Modern they sound too much like Buzzcocks-by-the-numbers.
That minor gripe, and the skippable “Phone”, don’t detract significantly from Modern. It’s Buzzcocks’ best post-’70s album. For the first time since their return, they sounded like they were doing something entirely their own and didn’t give a hoot what else was going on. The album title serves as a mission statement given this album sounds like a modernization of an effective formula. At the same time, however, it also reads like a tongue-in-cheek joke, given the sounds blended into the mix rest on ’80s-sounding electronic effects. It’s a genuinely clever approach because the retro-vibe feels novel, it steers clear of some underfunded OK Computer-lite direction, and it leads to a sound that the band can truly own. Shelley had released an album in 1983 that came with a program for a ZX Spectrum computer and, in some ways, Modern feels like Buzzcocks’ fulfillment of that direction.
Note: The numerical rating pertains to the individual album under review and not the full set.
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