Angular, twitchy, nervy: these are the terms that are traditionally employed to describe any Gang of Four effort. Not so with What Happens Next. Opening track “Where the Nightingale Sings”, while retaining the political critique that defined 1979’s seminal Entertainment!, seems like a wan gesture at the incomparable band that once was. The absence of former frontman Jon King is keenly felt.
The album opens with a crackly recording of an unidentifiably old blues tune, and while the melancholy it’s presumably intended to evoke is present throughout the album, there’s an unplanned irony as it projects that longing onto a lost past or more specifically, the disappearance of the Gang of Four I once knew and loved. The impassioned yelps of theory-laden lyrics and shear-sharp guitar have been replaced by droning lyrics and dead-eyed pseudoindustrial rock that sound like they belong on the fucking “The Crow” soundtrack.
This is hard for me to write; I fell deeply in love with Gang of Four while listening to a roommate’s copy of the compilation A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. It appealed to me on myriad levels – restless punk energy, leftist polemics, daggered riffs that threatened arterial bleeding – I couldn’t get enough of it. I bought an original copy of Entertainment! (which was lost to an ex-girlfriend), and I spazz-danced to “Damaged Goods” whenever it played at the local club. I’m going into this unnecessarily protracted description of my investment in the band so you understand how deeply I feel the betrayal that What Happens Next represents to me.
So back to the album. There are a few glimmers of hope, buoyed by the guest appearance of The Kills’ Alison Mosshart. “Broken Talk” and “England’s In My Bones” recalls the earlier danceable clang und drang , albeit refracted through the lens of a band influenced by Gang of Four doing a cover. Even the presence of guest appearances (Herbert Grönemeyer also does a Teutonic Bowie impersonation on “The Dying Rays”) smacks of contemporary marketing tactics unbecoming a formerly radical band. I’d expect it of Kanye West, but not from a band that once made fun of folks “down on this disco floor” where “they make their profit.”
This isn’t entirely out of character for Gang of Four. In the past, they’ve experimented with funk and synth (consider: “Is It Love,” “We Live as We Dream Alone,” and “Womantown”), and I applaud any effort that takes a risk. But the anxiety about the contemporary condition that once brimmed with brio and potential usurpation of the status quo seems to have diminished into the anomie that the band once condemned. The outcome is like a sonic misreading of Foucault’s “Useless to Revolt.” The urgency is drained, the capacity for struggle depleted. With this album, I suggest we return the gift of Gang of Four recapitulating its legacy. I’m disappointed with this album, and I hope it does poorly. Not because I wish the band ill, but because I want them once again to announce “to hell with poverty, we’ll get drunk on cheap wine,” and make an angrier album. Preferably one that doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of failing to fucking rock.
Whatever Happens Next by Gang of Four is released on Membran on 2nd March 2015