'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


Cherry Red Records

May 29, 2020

Sell You Everything

Cherry Red Records

29 May 2020

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.







The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.