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Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside is something of a pop Zelig. Emerging from the avant-garde postpunk U.K. scene of the late ’70s, Gartside led an early lefty-intellectual version of Scritti, sharing a record label (Rough Trade) with the Raincoats and Pop Group and sharing bills with fellow nihilists Joy Division, Gang of Four, and Echo and the Bunnymen. But disillusioned by Ian Curtis’s suicide in the early ’80s, he flipped the script and went thinking-man’s-pop. With one hand in New Romantic hair gel and the other in the grad library stacks, Scritti version 2.0 specialized in love songs about love songs, lifting buzzwords like deconstruction from Jacques Derrida. Next, working with Zapp’s great (now late) Roger Troutman and r&b producer Arif Mardin, Gartside reemerged in full dangling-earring synth-pop mode—which mode culminated in the sparkly Martha Quinn-era MTV favorite “Perfect Way,” a tinkle-funk gem so sonically bling-bling that Miles Davis covered it on Tutu in 1986.
For most of the past decade, however, Gartside has disappeared into a self-imposed exile on the Welsh coast, developing an interest in American indie hip-hop and listening to 12-inches in solitude. Interestingly enough, while he was holed up with his big sweaters and Bush Babees singles, Van Morrison brought James Brown’s band over to the same obscure resort region for weeklong Fantasy Island bar band stints at the local hotel. And the same freedom-in-isolation that allowed Van to become James Brown for a week evidently allows veteran popster Gartside to embrace hip-hop and indie rock with wide-eyed, irony-be-damned earnestness on his comeback effort, Anomie & Bonhomie. Despite cameos by MCs Mos Def and the Bush Babees’ Lee Majors and other funk-ay guests like Meshell Ndegéocello and Wendy Melvoin (of Wendy and Lisa), Gartside never lapses into over-40-and-feelin’-foxy mode by trying to be anything but an autumnal pop star doing what he does best—write decent songs that lend themselves to his fragile falsetto. (No, thank God, he doesn’t try to rap, which is more than you can say for the equally pasty Bobby Gillespie on the new Primal Scream record.) But it is also this what’s-not-to-like pop consistency that flattens out whatever promising jags the rhythm-collisions of angular guitar rock, sparkly pop, and hip-hop inspire. Even though it’s all good here, it’s never that great.
Now, I could go on and on about how the best parts of rock and hip-hop are those ornery little bits that pop’s pleasantries can never quite catch up with, but part of the problem is that Gartside’s record collection has aged more gracefully than his voice. The constant here—and producer David Gamson doesn’t want us to forget it—is Gartside’s compressed falsetto. Both would probably like to think of his breathy cooing as timelessly, unashamedly pop, but it can recall the ear candy wisps of Enuff ‘Z’ Nuff’s “Fly High Michelle” a decade ago just as easily as it can suggest any boy band ballad today. Which explains why it sounds so perfect on the (cringe) reggae doo-wop (??!!) of “Mystic Handyman,” a track so retarded it makes Men At Work sound like Burning Spear. But on choruses stuck between Majors’s and Def’s gruff, bump-along cadences, Gartside’s Ghetto Boy George singing doesn’t so much flip the hip-hop script as doodle in its margins.
Not surprisingly, Anomie is most thrilling when—instead of melding its elements into lukewarm post-Prince public radio funk à la the Ndegéocello duet “Die Alone”—it shifts gears between genres without using the clutch. The opening “Umm” strangles a powerpop beat with serpentine riffery until it collapses into an outta-nowhere rap section, as if to answer the question: What if somebody rapped over Shudder To Think? Likewise, the existential bounce of “The World You Understand (Is Over & Over & Over)” clips together bits of Meshell’s and Gartside’s voices into some knobby-enough r&b, made even more knobby by the next track, “Here Come July,” where Gartside throws down as melodically and pissed off as tattooed little fucks half his age: “It doesn’t mean nothing, it doesn’t mean shit/How can I be a part of it?”
But part of what? For as bugged out as Gamson and Gartside get incorporating genres, cohesion is the real goal of pop, and Anomie & Bonhomie‘s most cohesive songs are the throwback ballads “First Goodbye,” “Born to Be,” and “Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder.” There’s something absolutely pleasant about them, in all the neutral-spring-colors-on-the-Welsh-coast sense of the word—especially “Brushed,” with its breezy strings and smiling beat. And that’s the strange beauty here: that Gartside’s Bacharach-chugging-a-40-ounce experiments with classic and contemporary pop sounds revert back to a bunch of MCs and session musicians sipping bottled water, while Gartside and Gamson make the spectacularly urbane testaments to pop’s timelessness sound best of all.