2003 was Buzzcocks’ biggest year of touring since the 1970s, and the band were on the road every couple of months with performances throughout the US, Europe, and even a couple of gigs in Australia. For the first time, notably, their album backing this bout of touring was a fairly straight half-half split between Shelley’s efforts and Diggle’s. This was a real mark of how the relationship at the heart of the band had matured. The closeness of the two musicians is visible in how coherent this self-titled album sounds. The pair, now entering their fourth decade in music, were still sufficiently enthused by their respective muses that this was the band’s fourth album in 11 years.
From start to finish, this is a Buzzcocks that sounds more agitated, more wired than they had done in several decades. The album opener, “Jerk”, starts with a tremendous lead-guitar line which powers into a reinvigorated Shelley apologizing to a lover or a friend over a frantic backing. The song has a darker instrumental hue that serves as a pointer to a prominent feature running throughout the album. After a decade of relatively high-pitched jangling pop tones, Buzzcocks had finally moved to a more hardcore chug that pulls them into the new millennium where emo was now the dominant style for charting guitar-led bands. The relative heaviness is welcome and works with both Shelley’s drawl and Diggle’s growl. Closer “Useless”, for instance, opens with a pound of drums that hits the lungs, before unleashing guitars that hiss and spit their way into a full-pelt run for the finishing line split only by a fine solo that decorates the song’s mid-section.
It’s a shame that all the sonic experiments of Modern had been binned, leaving them floating as a one-album-novelty rather than a wider inspiration. As presented on 2002’s Buzzkunst album, Shelley had restored an interesting collaboration with Howard Devoto as the repository for any enduring electronica impulses. Two songs here are co-credited to Shelley and original Buzzcocks’ member Devoto. “Stars” is a pummeling tune featuring some particularly angular guitar soloing that tears through the track. The second, “Lester Sands” is another high-tempo throb of energy with Shelley sneering lines with a rare nastiness and some fine vocal harmonies.
Shelley and Diggle’s harmonizing also elevates “Wake Up Call” and “Friends” among others. The latter is a late-era treat on the lyrical front: “it’s a mixed-up world, these are mixed-up times and the recipe of life’s mixed-up too. But it’s the quality of the ingredients that matter — I award myself a cordon bleu.” Lesser scribes couldn’t write such a conceit without coming across convoluted. By contrast, Shelley’s passion and bonhomie sell it perfectly as an upbeat bout of wisdom.
Beneath the new gasoline-fueled overdrive, one criticism is that it’s a return to the inescapable core formula of Buzzcocks: all instruments on, all of the time. Pauses to accentuate a feature of a song are virtually nonexistent. The album pogos its way from the grit of “Friends” to the growl of “Driving You Insane”, then from the pounding of “Morning After” straight into the punch of “Sick City Sometimes” — there’s a chance of getting a nosebleed here. What there isn’t is much chance of a change of pace or diversity of texture.
Still, when an album comes with a cast-iron guarantee to start a mosh-pit, it feels unfair to make that too heavy a complaint. There’s a renewed energy that wouldn’t disgrace artists in their mid-twenties, let alone within touching distance of their fifties. Buzzcocks invented the perfect merger of pop and punk that spawned a surprisingly resilient genre, they mastered it, and it’s a sweet spot they own. Every band has its core terrain, and to wish otherwise is to want a group to be some other one entirely. While Buzzcocks feels more like the natural successor to All Set than it does to Modern, and while it sounds like another attempt to match up to a modern scene rather than to plow a unique furrow, the band showed they could keep up and shed some of the ‘nice boy’ vibe that had been present.