'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 Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

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.