Some aging rock legends make music that feels like a shadow of the early work that cemented their fame. Not Nina Hagen, though. On Unity (Grönland), her first album since 2011, the German pop-punk icon unleashes a blast of feral camp that sounds if anything more Hagen than ever. Her distinctive theatrical voice has roughened to an even more theatrical froglike croak; on her preposterous, reverb-laden cover of Merle Travis’s workers’ anthem “16 Tons” (whose video features a series of fabulously diverse queer-coded lip-synchers wearing variations of Hagen’s famously flamboyant makeup), she sounds like she’s gargling at the bottom of a mine shaft. On her German-language cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” she somehow goes even further over the top, enunciating as if she’s in an opera against hyperactive synth wind effects. The original songs on Unity are great too; Hagen teams up with George Clinton for the insinuating funk of the title track, which interpolates the African American traditional “Wade in the Water” and incorporates the dial tone of a collect call from prison as a hook. Jamaican singer Liz Mitchel of Boney M. adds her mannered squeaks to Hagen’s mannered bellow on the feminist reggae anthem “United Women of the World.” The political messages of solidarity with workers, Black people, women, queer people, and victims of war are all so gloriously big and bloated that they go beyond corny and become transcendent, weird, counterintuitively hip schmaltz. When Hagen’s shouts of “Freedom!” echo away at the end of “Redemption Day,” they sound like liberation from the shackles of time, hate, and good taste alike. Unity is a joy.
Nina Hagen’s Unity is available through Grönland.