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Gang Of Four
Content John Calvert , February 17th, 2011 08:53

This record gives you migraine. Ha, funny one. Like in the song. But it's true - a tangible stiffening above the neck and a centimetre behind the eyes. The impulse is to crack your jaw the way people crack their knuckles. A sciatic irritant of an album – exasperating, declamatory and asininely triumphant from start to finish - Content tests your concentration and the enamel on your teeth. Stand up, sit down, hyperventilate, bite your nails, grow a moustache, burn your clothes, rent a mini-digger, take a photo of a man walking, buy a monocle, laugh outrageously until you scare yourself, learn to fence, learn origami, burn your clothes, go to church, alphabetize you cereal boxes or wear a gas mask when driving, but do anything to escape its clammy grasp and the torturous void that is total neural non-engagement. It's shoe shopping with your mum when you're nine, it's watching Blockbusters with Bob in 1986, it's Human Traffic; the extended version, it's waiting for Neil from work to get to the point of his story, it's a Ron Howard film, it's Broken Social Scene Play The Hits, it's Mad About You starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt, it's a sigh, in a Rumbelows, in Wrexham, 27 years ago, on a wet Tuesday. Your only lucid thought when listening to Content is something like “hmmph, this is disappointing, like the way life is, and always will be, forever”.

A repulsive bit of snark there, I hear you say… and if only the once great Leeds band deserved a more measured response. But after a week of desperately trying to like Content - entertainment on a par with an emergency tracheotomy - my critical faculties are shot, reduced to random sex sounds, Cockney rhyming slang and swinging punches in a cupboard.

After grimacing like emphysemic Russians for a couple of years they've managed a pellet of something approaching the sound of 'quintessential' Gang Of Four. Once a radical new mode of dissent - a weeping laugh, dancing the h-bomb - so numerously has it been stripped for parts that any semblance of treasonous cool and incisory newness has long since perished, bleached in the fires of 2004, besmirched by the shit-flecked tendrils of lesser spirits. You'd have thought they'd have picked up on this fact. It's possible they did, but calculated that collecting their long deserved reparations was going to take playing it safe.

Only it's not just safe; this is a defanging. Out goes the scything atonality, the brooding stretches of space, the shadows and the tensile pulse of Thatcher-era upheaval - basically anything that made them great before Here. What you're left with is a dead zone between funkless funk and berkish indie-rock, both rendered blithely anodyne and abrasively insipid, so very little of which sticks in the memory. 30 years past their prime they've returned with the same old rope, but purged of its incendiary social context, the shock of the new, and the burning intent of a group of young leftist heroes. And what do you get if you take the fish from the water? A dead trout and a very bad smell. On Content, the aesthetic has never sounded more weak and weary than in the hands of the very men who invented it.

For a record made from 99% perspiration and another 99% careful contrivance, its almost destitute of artistic prudence. The songs are flat and gross, further exacerbated by Gill's frowsy, dim production, comparable to a senile man driving a car – heavy on the pedal, heavy of the brakes and no real destination in mind. Any remaining hope of a defining agent finding purchase in this soup is extinguished by rampant over-egging on the part of each individual member, who in the end cancel each other out with inelegant force.

The problem is there's no dichotomy to the music any longer. They're all moving in the same direction and getting nowhere fast. Back in the day it was often bassist Dave Allen's job to carry both the melody and the rhythm, allowing the guitar freedom to scratch at the song in angry isolation, denaturing that beautifully stiff funk before plunging beneath the surface with your shredded nerves. On Content, Gill seems to be spread very thinly, splitting his time between sustaining the energy, adding filigree, melodizing and compensating for a lesser bassist to Allen in Thomas McNeice, while simultaneously wheezing after the inanely gallivanting drums. Most of the time he only succeeds in clogging the mix, piling on random chicken scratching and lunging hoots, fret-spanking away at King's ridiculously poor singing. The best track 'You'll Never Pay For The Farm' has Gill working against, or laterally to the thrust, imposing nuance, traction and syncopation on the stomping rhythm. However, no matter how much lip-biting and elbow grease afoot, manically so on 'Who Am I” or the groooo-vay 'I Party All The Time', the songs are never anything other than lumbering.

So what's the message beneath the din? After all, Entertainment and Solid Gold are lyrically among the most intensely analysed albums of their era. Well, who better than Gang of Four to challenge the great sensory saturation of the new millennium; pontificating here on the hysterical urge to conform driving social media, the stultifying effects of information pollution, and the erosion of the self therein; a coercion of the senses, if you will. Despite some cliched tosh like “the shoppers are asleep” and “the cameras never lie” its an early artistic interpretation of the Facebook syndrome, even if King's genius for deeply-layered metaphor is diminished, rendering his congested discourse slightly artless. Still, a literal commentary is nearly as commendable.

Their very, very worst moments arrive when the rhythm section or Gill's guitar mimics King's clipped vocals (or vice versa), as on 'Do As I Say' and ''I'll never Forget Your Lonely Face”. The effect is fist-gnawingly monochromatic, speaking volumes about both the combo's emaciated touch for groove and their failing ingenuity. Take for example the ham-fisted transition two thirds through 'Do A I Say', or the coda to “a Fruit-fly In The Beehive” where the only way they could think of ending is just to let the air down on the tyres. It's supposed to establish circularity, or symbolize the innate meaningless of life, or something else artsy. Really what it does is leave you twiddling your thumbs, wondering if it's really true what they say, that you can fit a full grown stoat in a milk bottle. An open letter to all of those dinosaurs about to reform: sit down and stay down. If Gang of Four can't manage it, what chance do you have?

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