Unfurnished Rooms

A pleasing new album - as if Blancmange have journeyed back to the early 1980s and taken a different turning

The repeats of Top Of The Pops on BBC4 don’t half remind one of the ageing process. The other week featured Blancmange’s final appearance on the programme, in the video for their 1984 single

‘Don’t Tell Me’. Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe frolick around Valencia, having the time of their lives. Arthur, in particular, appears always to be on the verge of bursting into laughter. How easy can this be? We write songs, we record them, we fly around the world, we get in the charts! And then we do it all over again!

‘Don’t Tell Me’ was the opening track of Blancmange’s second album, Mange Tout, which reached number 8 in the charts. The next year its successor, Believe You Me, peaked at number 54, and no Blancmange single ever entered the Top 20 again. By June 1986 they’d decided to split, and another group was consigned to pop’s footnotes.

There they would have remained but for technology. One of the lesser-sung effects of the digital revolution has been the way it has led to the reunification of scores of half-forgotten bands. When you are able to see exactly who is interested in you, and how many of them are willing to make some investment in your return, it makes it far easier to calculate the worth of coming back.

Evidently, it was worth Blancmange returning, which they did in 2011. Though Luscombe was forced to leave for health reasons, Arthur has retained the name and Blancmange have been more prolific in their dotage than in their youth: Unfurnished Rooms is their fourth ‘proper’ studio album, plus we’ve had one record of instrumentals and Happy Families Too…, a rerecording of their debut.

It’s hardly surprising that the Arthur of Unfurnished Rooms doesn’t convey the same joie de vivre of the ‘Don’t Tell Me’ video. He’s 59 now, and the lyrics reflect a certain preoccupation with the passing of time. "You look so well in your online profile – young, healthy," he sings in the album closer, ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’. In ‘What’s The Time’ he wonders, "What’s the best indie record of all time? Are you meaning the 90s, or can I rewind Byzantine?" ‘Wiping The Chair’ opens: "You’ve really changed, I hope for the better."

Luscombe’s departure after 2011’s Blanc Burn meant some of the pop smarts were lost: there’s nothing as instantly infectious on Unfurnished Rooms as that earlier album’s ‘Drive Me’ or ‘The Western’ (though Blanc Burn also had its share of the mordant sombreness that has been such a defining feature of Blancmange in the recent solo-Arthur period).

If the first version of Blancmange seemed like a direct rival to whatever Vince Clarke happened to be doing at the time (Luscombe even looked like Clarke), making playful but hugely accessible synthpop, the late-middle-aged version of Blancmange sounds as if it’s the result of journeying back to the early 1980s and taking a different turning. Arthur’s voice was never the most supple of instruments, and here he sounds at times oddly like Ian Curtis: a solemn and foreboding baritone. There’s doom in the lyrics, too, but rather than being internalised, taken into the realm of the metaphysical, it’s rendered quotidian and local: "There’s been a chemical spillage / On a trading estate / In Altrincham / The area in question / Has been sealed off," Arthur sings on ‘We Are The Chemicals’, as if he’s the fourth local newsreader of the apocalypse.

The Ian Curtis comparison isn’t made lightly. There are times when Unfurnished Rooms sounds as if Joy Division had swapped their guitars for synthesizers, but without turning into New Order. The listener isn’t propelled to the dancefloor: the tempo is often stately, and the songs are structured not around dramatic chord changes but the construction of mood around sustained notes and themes: ‘In December’ takes one synth note for its bassline and stays there throughout. The drama here is all kitchen sink, not widescreen.

It feels anti-climactic to describe any album as a worthwhile addition to the catalogue, neither a disgrace nor a triumph, but sometimes it’s apt. Unfurnished Rooms is worthy. If you’ve never heard Blancmange before, maybe don’t start here. If you love them, you’ll be here already. But if you have fond memories of those 80s hits, and a certain curiosity about where Neil Arthur went afterwards, don’t be put off. Unfurnished Rooms offers plenty of pleasures for you.

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