Gang of Four are apparently making a real attempt to reactivate themselves. The 2005 album Return the Gift, on which they re-recorded songs from their early, good records, seemed like nothing more than an attempt to raise some cash (since EMI owned the copyrights on the original recordings of their songs) and redress some auditory wrongs the band claimed had always ruined their early work for them. But then they toured, and were rapturously received, and now two of the original members—vocalist Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill—have recruited new members to replace departed bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham, and recorded their first album of entirely new material since 1995.
The familiar elements of the early Gang of Four sound are present in spades on Content. (Buy it from Amazon.) King is still speak-singing his lyrics in an agitated bark, only rarely crooning a line here or there, and Gill’s guitar sound—heavily influenced by Dr. Feelgood‘s Wilko Johnson, but driven into a whole other realm of skronk and noisiness—displays plenty of its old bite. But the new rhythm players, bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Mark Heaney, lack the fluidity of their predecessors, and the others have been slowed down by age, too. The difference between Gang of Four 1979 and 2011 is stark, and inescapable—it’s the gulf between the Public Image Ltd of “Albatross” and the PIL of “The Body.” The throbbing “I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face,” with its slightly too-slow funk rhythm, its drifting melodica and its too on-the-nose “Gang of Four”-ish riff, feels like an encapsulation of the album’s weaknesses: Gill’s overdubbed guitar fights with itself, a second vocalist shows up unbidden and sneering, and ultimately the whole thing is just a reminder of the toll age takes on us all. Other tracks, like “I Party All the Time,” are interesting for bad reasons. The guitar on that one is distorted in the ugliest possible way, sounding like a Buddha Machine playing a sampled Andy Gill riff. When King tries to sing properly, as on “A Fruitfly in the Beehive,” he sounds like one of his own imitators, Franz Ferdinand‘s Alex Kapranos.
The farther away GoF move from their early sound, the worse the results. “It Was Never Gonna Turn Out Too Good” fulfills the prophecy of its title, using a computerized voice for no good reason and featuring a conventionally pretty, bluesy guitar riff that, even when it drifts into distortion, wouldn’t raise an eyebrow from Pink Floyd‘s David Gilmour. On “Do As I Say,” the same vocalist who intruded on “I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face” attempts a Jello Biafra-esque hectoring of the listener, failing utterly.
But at the same time, their most explicitly retro moves—most of which come from Gill—just seem like flailing attempts to recapture past glories. The riffs that most closely match ones heard on Entertainment! and Solid Gold are all the more unsatisfying for being surrounded by too-loud production and too-slow, overly “rock” rhythms. In many ways, this album reminds me of the Screaming Blue Messiahs‘ 1989 farewell disc, Totally Religious, where the squalling rockabilly-noise trio attempted to metal-ize their sound and wound up losing nearly all their early power. Gang of Four didn’t need to make this album to pay the rent—King and Gill were doing just fine even before they sold “Natural’s Not In It” to an Xbox commercial. It doesn’t damage their legacy; it’s just a pointless gesture.