Punk-godfather/philosopher George Santayana once said that those who dis the past are doomed to get smacked upside by it. Most wise people take these words to heart, but some artists take the warning as an invitation, reveling in that self-defeating doom. Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie (pushing 40) and the Soft Boys’ Robyn Hitchcock (pushing 50) have spent half their lives indulging their obsessions. Here’s a pair of band honchos who made their rep in their twenties excavating the collective musical past with the fervor of expert archeologists—and then spent decades struggling against their own creations, trying to make sense of pop existences now once or twice removed.
After his apprenticeship in the Jesus and Mary Chain, Gillespie didn’t get noticed until Scream’s pop-house breakthrough, Screamadelica (1991), a milestone that united England’s baggy-trousered clubbers with their six-string-worshiping counterparts. After lapsing into second-rate Stones imitations (Give Out but Don’t Give Up, 1994), he righted Scream’s course with retoolings through trip-hop (Vanishing Point, 1997) and sloganeering noise-fests (XTRMNTR, 2000). But the band’s latest offering, Evil Heat, probably won’t turn many heads. When it was released in England in August (it won’t see these shores until Thanksgiving) even the usually supportive British press gave mixed reviews, complaining of “lyric fragments” and half-assed politics (Gillespie actually ran to the WC when his sentiments were questioned in a recent interview). But while these may be fair knocks, this is still their catchiest, most compelling record yet.
Depth isn’t Gillespie’s m.o.—it’s the 100 mph thrill rides and chill-out vibes he assembles from his favorite musical artifacts. He’s “rock” thanks to his guitar noises and occasional 4/4 beat. His dance connection is tight because vocals and lyrics are secondary to the beat. He even demonstrates that “boogie” means both grimy rock and shuffling disco. And he doesn’t just wear his influences on his sleeve, he drags them into the studio: JAMC leader Jim Reid, Zep’s Robert Plant (on blues harp), longtime producers Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) and DJ Andrew Weatherall. (Even his fascination for glitz and attitude is sated when supermodel Kate Moss lays a breathless vocal on Lee Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning.”) He manages this disparate lot well by alternating glam stompers with industrial mayhem and electro-balms to cleanse the palate.
Unfortunately, Evil Heat‘s naughty lyrics don’t match the appetizing musical stew. Tropes like “shake it baby” and “here she comes” get thrown around with Nazi hats, leather boots, motorcycle crashes, garbage cans, and rapists—plenty of madness and not much logic (on “Skull X,” if he supposedly foments teenage suicide-apocalypse, who the hell is he egging on to “do it again”?) Often, the vocals are buried, which sometimes is just as well. After changing “Bomb the Pentagon” to “Rise” in light of last year’s terrorist attacks, he still tries to piss on the Yankee war machine, but Noam Chomsky he ain’t.
There’s no danger of Gillespie taking himself too seriously with this youth-corrupting bad-boy shtick. Even if he’s a faker, he’s an expert almost on a par with Bowie. Nevertheless, you wish his belief in songcraft were as strong as his attitude-worship, so that he’d shelve the whips and chains and feast on a fakebook.
On the flip side, you wish oddball Robyn Hitchcock would loosen his straitjacket and become a full-blown loony (like recent ex-jailbird Arthur Lee, perhaps). After the Soft Boys’ late-’70s twisted take on power-pop became a cult influence for ’80s indie rockers and Hitchcock crafted his string of well-regarded solo albums, he spent the ’90s mulling over his past with assorted compilations and live albums and disappearing into Dylan and Hendrix homages. With the recent reissue of the Boys’ classic Underwater Moonlight and Hitchcock’s use of old songs (and occasionally some ex-Boys themselves) in recent sets, a proper reunion seemed inevitable.
Though he indulges in occasional tired catchphrases (“sha-la-la-la,” “here she comes,” “alright, alright”), Hitchcock always throws in unexpected turns. Even if lines about the Antichrist and diamonds don’t cut it, you have to feel for a guy who pleads for “unprotected love” and grin at his Sebadoh name-drop in a tune poking fun at the music industry. Heads rolling on tennis courts, mothers and houseplants trying to poison you, and square-dance instructions that include vehicle destruction are part and parcel of his sanguine love songs. Like that other famously neurotic Hitchcock, he indulges in strange edits of scenes and imagery, less for suspense than for head-swirling surrealism (which he still does better than the Flaming Lips and the Elephant 6 crew).
Though the Boys’ Kimberley Rew has an impressive track record as a songsmith (Katrina and the Waves, Bangles, a charming recent solo album), the Softs remain Hitchcock’s show. And the new record reflects the fascination with melancholy enigmas often heard in his solo work. But thanks to the tasty guitar interactions and sterling harmonies, it adds up to his most impressive set of music in a while. It definitely doesn’t disgrace the Boys’ past, but that might be because Hitchcock’s wise enough not to try to upend his classic material.
Nonetheless, both Primal Scream’s and the Soft Boys’ new records lack a certain ambition. Hitchcock is a stronger songwriter with more consistent material than Gillespie, but maybe that’s because the Screamer tries on more guises. While Gillespie tries to overwhelm, Hitchcock tries to get under your skin—a more modest but ultimately more emotionally affecting goal. But they each might gain something from trying on the other’s goals for size—if Gillespie could locate his emotions and Hitchcock could be more daring, who knows how far they could go? Any well-meaning therapists out there willing to help?
The Soft Boys play Maxwell’s October 25 and the Bowery Ballroom October 26 and 27.