Anomie & Bonhomie
By Kevin John
It’s not an illusion: everything really does happen faster in the Information Age. And though it’s nice in theory to be able to access untold resources with the click of a mouse, faster is not always better. The Renaissance man has been swamped by a sea of unlimited, unsorted information–our sense that there’s just too much to know and do out there seems to have dwarfed our drive to be well-rounded. It may even have created a new breed of impotence: the inability to create or share information in a timely fashion can bring on dread, guilt, and even creative paralysis–in a word, anomie.
In pop music, the casualties are numerous, but My Bloody Valentine is one of the most notable: circa 1991, unable or unwilling to innovate at the pace their devotees had come to expect over five dauntingly prolific years, they pretty much went into hiding. Other groundbreaking pop artists, like Beck or Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh, have avoided the same fate via quirky detours that don’t carry the same pressure as a new album: Singh’s side project Clinton, Beck’s Mutations. Yet others have tried to beat time at its own game, summing up their careers before they’ve even had them: with its second disc of remixes and dog scraps, Roni Size’s New Forms certainly had that feel to it, and the recent debut from self-conscious dance producers the Boomtang Boys is titled Greatest Hits Volume One.
Scritti Politti, never a prolific act to start with, began as a postpunk band in Leeds more than 20 years ago, mixing politics and dancing a la Gang of Four or the Au Pairs. They and their labelmates at Rough Trade were arguably among the first pop bands in history whose music conveyed an awareness of themselves as ideological constructs–if rock ‘n’ rollers set themselves apart from pre-1955 pop stars by singing as if from their own experience, Scritti Politti and their ilk went further, examining what it meant to sing as “I.” So by 1981, when mastermind Green Gartside turned up the ether and started playing the swoony love man, he was already an old hand at monkey-wrenching the pop music machine.
He remains best known in the U.S for Scritti Politti’s Warner Brothers debut, Cupid & Psyche 85, one of a handful of masterpieces responsible for delineating the musical revolutions of the 80s–a danceable terrorscape of lovers trudging through a thicket of empty signifiers, a Wall of Tinkle with the word “word” poking through every few verses. While the Cure and Depeche Mode were using gloom and doom as a come-on, Gartside couldn’t get beyond language to reach the object of his affection. In the end, Cupid & Psyche 85 was an album about thinking too much. But most of the listeners who made “Perfect Way” a Top 40 hit didn’t notice, because the sound Gartside coaxed from his Fairlight synthesizer was one of the sunniest ever pinned to vinyl.
Scritti Politti released a follow-up, Provision, in 1988. Despite a preponderance of gorgeous melodies, the thin synthfunk came across as the bland piece of pop product Cupid had played at being. And then Gartside disappeared. Apart from some one-off collaborations with British Electric Foundation and Shabba Ranks, he was MIA for most of the 90s. Now, with no particular provocation, he’s returned with Anomie & Bonhomie, the first Scritti Politti record in almost 12 years.
The most peculiar thing about it is how outrageously unambitious it feels. It’s chock-full of guest musicians, which in itself is nothing new: Miles Davis and New York guitarist Robert Quine provided brief, hilariously tossed-off commentary on Gartside’s “Oh Patti” and “Don’t Work That Hard,” respectively, in the 80s. But the two most prominent guests on Anomie & Bonhomie, Me’shell Ndegeocello and Mos Def, sometimes seem more prominent than Gartside himself. There are a few sops to Scritti fans of old: “First Goodbye” and “Born to Be” are bittersweet slow burns in the vein of Cupid’s “A Little Knowledge,” and “Mystic Handyman” proves Gartside can do sunny with a live band. But for the most part–and especially on ghostly numbers like “Tinseltown to the Boogiedown” and “Die Alone”–he’s the one providing the hilariously tossed-off commentary.
Gartside’s parasitic tendencies aren’t entirely unprecedented either. He alluded to a less than puritan work ethic on Cupid with “Don’t Work That Hard” and “Small Talk” (“if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly”). He knows how his antiapproach is viewed nowadays, and a thread of temporal dread links many of his new songs: “I was time you put behind you,” “The timetables keep turning,” “They play for time and work for spaces,” etc. And in the ultimate foregrounding of pop’s unromantic status as a commodity hitched to the clock, the back cover of the CD features the track listing printed out as items on a receipt–with the running times as “prices.”
Yet by situating these songs in a context that blithely garbles the notion of artistic inspiration, Gartside has taken some of the pressure out of the concept of the follow-up, much as he smoothed over his linguistic dilemmas with chirpy synth sounds on Cupid. He’s fighting anomie with bonhomie, and it seems to be working.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eddie Monsoon.