One More Word From You About Jersey
487 · 27 May 04
Blondie: The Curse of Blondie
My own arbitrarily selective version of the retroactive creation myth of punk and New Wave centers around sixteen artists whose first full albums came out in the second half of the Seventies: Blondie (Blondie, 1976), Kate Bush (The Kick Inside, 1978), Buzzcocks (Another Music in a Different Kitchen, 1978), The Cars (The Cars, 1978), The Clash (The Clash, 1977), Devo (Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, 1978), The Human League (Reproduction, 1979), Joe Jackson (Look Sharp!, 1979), The Jam (In the City, 1977), The Knack (Get the Knack, 1979), Gary Numan (Tubeway Army, 1978), Penetration (Moving Targets, 1978), The Sex Pistols (Never Mind the Bollocks, 1977), Skids (Scared to Dance, 1979), Ultravox (Ultravox, 1977), The Undertones (The Undertones, 1979). Of these, only three are irretrievably defunct by virtue of key personnel deaths (The Clash, The Skids and The Cars), but four others seem basically content with less-forced non-existence (The Jam, Penetration, The Sex Pistols and Ultravox). Kate Bush hasn't made an album in more than a decade, but is periodically rumored to be composing; Devo haven't made a regular album since 1990 but are still working in music in mutated forms.
The other seven have all released studio records in the new millennium. Of these artists the clear standout, in my mind, is Joe Jackson, whom I think may well not have made his best record yet, and maybe not even his best three records. Beyond that, the albums mostly belong to niches. I've personally defended The Human League's Secrets and The Knack's Normal as the Next Guy at least on their own terms, I've read qualifiedly enthusiastic reactions I don't personally share to the new Buzzcocks and Undertones records, and I'm guessing that if I searched assiduously enough I could even find someone willing to say a good word for Gary Numan's recent dreary holding pattern, but I think general consensus holds that none of those five are doing current work that poses much threat of eclipsing the things for which they have long been known. In music, the more iconically you spend your youth, the more irrelevant your adulthood.
Blondie were plenty iconic. There was actually much I liked about their 1999 reformation album No Exit, but even I agreed that it was far too scattered to really constitute a coherent new identity, as if the band themselves understood that their fashion predicament was fundamentally hopeless. Every song was an event, which is fairly impressive, but they were unrelated events, which is wearying en masse, and there was something hollow about realizing that my single favorite song on the album was not only a cover, but a second recording of a song they'd already covered once before. When The Curse of Blondie materialized unexpectedly in an import bin, last fall, I picked it up and flipped it over to check what I assumed would be a compilation track-list. It's much easier to reunite than to stay together again, after all, and Deborah Harry is almost sixty.
If you were pettily hoping Blondie would have a massive self-doubt crisis and retreat chastenedly to Parallel Lines II, you'll be very disappointed. If you hated No Exit for its nature, not its execution, then The Curse of Blondie isn't likely to suggest a different perspective. Decide before you listen whether you're prepared to believe that Blondie are a working band right now, not a nostalgia act staging revivals, and if you aren't, then realize what your constraints do to your listening. If the most you can imagine conceding is "Hey, they can still play", maybe you should spend your time with something you are willing to be surprised by.
Here, at any rate, is my surprise: Blondie may not have made their best record yet, either. I may not believe that The Curse of Blondie is better than Parallel Lines, but it sounds like a record from a band still intrigued by the implications of their experience, not a band trying to recapture something lost. They could so easily have courted "Like it's 1980 all over again", and they don't. Inside this album it's precisely 2004 (or 2003, but whatever), and if No Exit was a scattering of fragments, The Curse of Blondie gathers them together and starts patiently trimming them into puzzle pieces. "Shakedown" opens the album with a statement, Harry gnashing through a skittering rap rant that oscillates between come on and kiss off, the band taking turns grinding and shimmering behind her. "Why don't you put it in, put it in?", she mutters, a challenge not a plea. "Good Boys", the clipped advance single, capitalizes on Blondie's own disco claims and makes a Queen reference sound more like the Bee Gees, but the arrangement and production are meticulously modernized and deceptively adroit, and Harry bounces between her high and low ranges like a conversation between her younger and older selves. It's telling that her older self gets the chorus this time.
But these are prefatory, for me, and the album only really gets going with "Undone". Drums kick into a rumble, guitars swirl into a roar spiked with harmonic leads, cymbals splash like centurions stomping through flood waters, and the combination evokes a controlled cross between "Sweet Child o' Mine" and Garbage. "Golden Rod" accelerates again, guitars keening sinuously and the bass dropping out periodically for emphasis, and Harry flits in loops around her notes like singing rock songs has no age limits after all. The implacable "Rules for Living" made my song list last year, synth-bass pulses fluttering under studied drums, Harry recognizing that cyclicality is not necessarily regression, and there's a big difference between heroism and faith. "In another life, when the gods were crazy / And complaining all the time, and the people look at me, / The volcano wants a bribe, and I'm still afraid of fire." "Mmm, I've been this way before."
After that relatively focused triptych, things begin spiraling outward. "Background Melody (The Only One)" is syncopated and sunny, synth brass sighing over cagey dub impulses, like island music from data atolls. Maybe most love songs are about destiny, and certainly vice versa. "Magic (Asadoya Yunta)" continues the ocean tour by recasting an Okinawan traditional lullaby into slow drum-machine crunch I measure in my mind against Big Country's "Winter Sky". But the surging "End to End" is as close as anybody has come to continuing what Shireen Liane began on the one Slingbacks album, and the twittery "Hello Joe" could be the Parachute Club or the Eurogliders with a couple decades more poise and a new generation of tools for playing instrument noises backwards.
If Blondie is picking singles to maximize their neo-disco chances, the second one will be "The Tingler". The lyrics don't have much to say (it isn't much of an insight that touches are exciting, but exhortations aren't supposed to be abstruse), but the orchestration is magical on nearly an "A Day in Erotica" scale, reverse-marimba pops being sucked in through an invisible curtain, dragging wispy backing-vocal contrails behind them with isolated handclaps for the holes resealing. Drums thump like a whole dance-club flexing, arpeggios cascade like robot flamenco. Any insecurely applied body glitter, however, is promptly blasted off by "The Last One in the World", the album's biggest rock song, nearly halfway to Deep Purple, and it's a redemptive irony that one of New Wave's spikiest bands would build the bridge to a then-old arena-rousing order that by now is just as many levels removed as punk.
The stepwise exit then unfolds over the final three tracks. "Diamond Bridge" is smoky and obdurate, like a dream in perpetual danger of waking dissolution, chapters marked with volume jumps and margins illuminated with bass swirls against hi-hat lattices. "Desire Brings Me Back" is a squawking indulgence in poetry-slam jazz/metal, tangled spasms of mismatched guitar and horn notes perforating Harry's eerie recitation. And "Songs of Love" a grand, sad, slow saxophone ballad, and keeps its sentiment simple. The album doesn't reach a conclusion so much as arrive at a compelling impasse. Sometimes it's safe to stop only when we find the vantage point from which the future is inscrutable.
So what kind of band is Blondie going to be now? A huge part of the fun, I think, is that neither we nor they can be sure yet. At different moments they could be Garbage with wider range and more self-awareness, or Kylie Minogue with more depth and more time, or Laurie Anderson with more rhythm and fewer preconceived ironies. One of the best reasons not to leave music to the kids is that even when we're not so certain that age brings wisdom, at least it reliably brings some detachment. A younger band would probably choose provisional directions and force an identity, believing they have to, and maybe miss something more circuitous but more interesting. One of the best reasons not to leave music to the grown-ups, obviously, is that forcing identities is part of what makes music history happen. The records Blondie made when they thought they knew exactly what they wanted to be are part of what changed music. The Curse of Blondie is not a revolution record, and we still need revolution records. But the kids line up to make those, and the corporations line up opposite to try to co-opt them, and some nights those parallel lines aren't the ones you want to put your ears between.
We also need liberation records, records that spend their energy on untangling the questions they feel compelled to ask themselves, instead of reiterating the answers they hope to inflict on others. The Curse of Blondie sets up some of the same oppositions from No Exit, between old noises and new, disco and rock, momentum and agility, invitation and aggression. We try to make these pairings into syllogisms, but that's probably often the wrong wish. If on No Exit they were juxtapositions, on The Curse of Blondie I feel them as web-strand tensions. Every song seems like an independently-notable event to me, again, and I don't remember the last time I could say that about two albums in a row by one band, but this time the independences don't feel self-circumscribed, and the record doesn't feel like it starts over from scratch at every index. These songs inhabit at least seven styles, but across them Blondie sound to me like one band making one record. The songs are connected, this time, by speeds or diffidences or hums. If No Exit seemed like chaos, The Curse of Blondie begins to outline the order that the apparent chaos conceals. Where we once forced identities, we try to learn the discipline to simply allow them to appear. A system may emerge slowly, or fitfully, or already broken before we've ever really seen it work. A system may not have a single organization or a single meaning. Arguably the meaning of the best ones may be palpable but unknowable. But if we don't fault the records that twenty- and thirty-year-olds make for the riddles they've yet to grasp they haven't solved, then we should be even more tolerant of the records sixty-year-olds make for the things they're still figuring out how not to say. Blondie's next album may have twelve styles, or one, or senses of both. They have been icons of a rebellion, but rebellions are intrinsically defined by what you fight. They may yet learn that this is always a trap, and that freedom is not something you wrest from your enemies, but something you finally grant yourselves in peace.