Dark Matters

ON  BY DAVE

We’ve all seen the old guys with toupees bombing along in convertible sports cars, rap music blaring for all to hear trying so desperately to defy time. Thankfully that’s not The Stranglers.  If not the best of the myriad British punk bands of the 1970s, The Stranglers certainly are the most resilient. “We’re a bunch of old guys now,” bassist and clear leader J.J. Burnel told Uncut. “And I wanted out music to reflect that.”

Old; perhaps not, but certainly a good deal more mature than the brawling, leather-jacketed lads who sang about being “Down in the Sewer” or “walking on the beaches, looking at the peaches” over 40 years ago. The result is Dark Matters, their 18th studio album, out this month, one Burnel has said is “our first ‘grown-up’ record.”

That too is an over-statement; the band has clearly been maturing and expanding their musical boundaries since the ’80s. But Dark Matters does feel different. And no wonder. It’s been eight years since their last record, and a lot has happened since then. Jet Black, their sinister-looking drummer went from being the full-time pounder to a guy who’d play a song at encores if they were playing close to home to a fully-retired, ailing 80-something the rest now look at as a sort of Yoda, a wise senior statesmen advisor. More significantly, of course, the world has changed in the past 18 months with the pandemic, and one of its first celebrity victims was the band’s ultra-talented but…odd…keyboardist Dave Greenfield. His odd ways and haircuts are revealed by Burnel to be attributable to his being autistic, innocent and blissfully unaware of much of what was going on around him (think a pleasanter version of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.) Thankfully, this record had been in the works for years and many Greenfield keyboard bits were already taped and ready to go leading to his eerie posthumous presence on most of the tracks. The one exception to that was the tribute “And If You Should See Dave” they did after his death, with the sad “here is where your solo would go” at the end.

Dark Matters lives up to its name. The 11-song effort isn’t cheery in feel. It is however, well-played, eclectic and full of earworms that catch you whether you want them to or not. What it is not is a load of ’70s snot-nosed punk revisited. At first listen, perhaps the biggest surprise is that the overall feel is one of British prog rock (!) aiming to not lose touch of the pop world altogether. Greenfield’s swirling keyboards add to the oft-anthemic seeming songs that at times seem almost reminiscent of early Rush or like something which might have been written for Queen late in its Freddie years. Of course there are exceptions; “The Lines”, is startling for its directness and simplicity, a spoken-word poem about aging with minimal acoustic guitar and organ accompaniment. There’s still a lot of anger and hostility barely below the surface, but unlike the Meninblack of 45 years back, now it’s a focused rage against dictatorships (“No Man’s Land”), rallying freedom-fighters (“Water”) and questioning the ever-burgeoning space race. That in the very proggy “Last Men On The Moon” (Canadian fans might think they even detect a hint of Prism in it) which contains one of the most laugh-out-loud lines we’ve heard in a long time : “with all the things you can chase/ they’re putting geckoes into space”. Which is deeper than it might seem at first glance, but does highlight the album’s weak link, which is the lyrics. While not bad anywhere in the album, they do seem rather basic in places and under-written; the bombastic “White Stallion”, for instance (about the American “ceding of moral superiority in the world” according to J.J., with China waiting in the wings to take over) gets bogged down in a nonsensical “kissing in the rain” chorus.

That said, the songs largely lend themselves to singing along and at their best do indeed make you think about this world we live in. Mostly though, The Stranglers demonstrate they can still play. Thankfully, J.J.’s booming bass really power through songs like “No Man’s Land” and Baz Warne drops in some very nice, Chris Isaak-y, almost flamenco guitar hooks here and there, and Greenfield was still as stellar upto his final days. They also still rock and as much as ever, and mostly have a great ear for a catchy chorus and hook. My bottom line is that while nothing here rises to all-time greatness, almost all of the songs are worthy and it’s an album that bears repeated listening.

A good mature rock album that looks forward while giving a nod to the past. I’m happy to report it’s already hit #4 on the UK album charts. I give it 4 flying lizards out of 5.

(Early purchasers get a bonus CD of live performances dedicated to Dave Greenfield. It’s worth grabbing if you’re a fan, but not their best live record and inexplicably, the man it pays tribute to – the keyboardist – seems mixed rather low in the balance.)

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