In 1976 or ’77, no British punk worth his or her salt would have admitted to sentimentality or material greed, the two major motivating factors for bands that decide to reunite. Yet here we are, some three decades later, and Buzzcocks, the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, and many others have regrouped for tours and/or albums. Out of the many reunions that have taken place over the years since punk burned itself out, the Buzzcocks’ has proven to be one of the most enduring and least embarrassing. Since 1993, the current incarnation of the band — original vocalists/guitarists Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle and late additions Tony Barber and Phil Barker on bass and drums, respectively — has released five albums and toured regularly. While their first three albums together were hit-or-miss affairs, offering a few examples of the Buzzcocks’ trademark punk-pop masterpieces alongside middle-of-the-road rock (and, on 1999’s Modern, some ill-advised synthesizer accompaniment), in 2003 they gained critical favor with a hard-driving eponymous effort that recaptured some of the raw power of their early years. They managed to keep the momentum going with a supporting tour featuring a classics-heavy set that is captured on the Live at Shepherds Bush Empire DVD.
Judging from the first notes of “Flat-Pack Philosophy”, the title track and opener of the band’s new album, it sounds like we’re in store for another hard-and-fast ride. In truth, though, Flat-Pack Philosophy largely trades in the darkness and aggression of its predecessor for a poppier, more melodic approach. It’s rather different from Buzzcocks but nearly as strong, showing that the last album was no fluke: the second version of the band has finally hit its stride in the studio. Much of the album’s success can be attributed to the production by Barber, who has helmed the last three Buzzcocks’ recordings. The sound he achieves is open, clear, and balanced, bringing equal focus to each instrument and voice. More importantly, though, both Shelley and Diggle have written solid, memorable songs.
With the exception of the small amount of electronic noodling on Modern, the current incarnation of the Buzzcocks wisely hasn’t tinkered much with the band’s trademark punk-pop sound. Not surprisingly, then, Flat-Pack Philosophy sounds very much like a Buzzcocks album, with succinct songs (Diggle’s “Soul Survivor” clocks in just around a minute-and-a-half), lightning-fast guitar solos, and chirpy choruses. Many of the lyrics revisit past themes, too. Shelley’s “Wish I Never Loved You”, “I Don’t Exist”, and “Reconciliation” build on the lovelorn tradition of “Ever Fallen in Love”, “Love You More” and “Fiction Romance”, and while “Reconciliation” approaches love from a more mature perspective, lyrics like “I’m ashamed I’ve been blamed so much I wanted to die” (“Wish I Never Loved You”) could just have easily been written in 1978.
Diggle once again references car crashes on “Soul Survivor” while his “Big Brother Wheels” (“Big brother wheels / Gonna stamp it out of you in time / Gonna make you jump and walk the line”) rallies against conformity just as “Autonomy” and “Why She’s a Girl from the Chainstore” did years ago. Another running theme is consumerism. Diggle begins “Between Heaven and Hell” with the words, “They say the best things in life are free / But now I’m not so sure”. Shelley’s “Credit” starts off with the sound of a grocery self-checkout and centers around the wistfully sung chorus, “Credit / In love with the never never / Wish I could get something I really need”. Even the title of the album refers to a certain Scandinavian furniture manufacturer whose low-cost products come in flat boxes for self-delivery and self-assembly.
These scattered sociopolitical statements by no means make Flat-Pack Philosophy a dour listen. With its fun guitar licks, infectious chorus, and fast tempo, the title track is probably the band’s best new song since the “Thunder of Hearts” single from Modern seven years ago, and “I’ve Had Enough” is as close to classic Buzzcocks as one can hope to get in the 21st century. Then again, the new century is shaping up to be a good one for the Buzzcocks. Maybe there are more classic songs to come.