Given the tragic and untimely death of The Slits’ Ari Up in 2010 and the also tragic selling of butter by John Lydon in 2008, Poly Styrene in some ways cuts a lonely figure as UK first-wave punk legend (though of course we couldn’t overlook the indomitable Siouxsie Sioux). Generation Indigo reveals more affinities with Ari than we have seen in Styrene’s previous work — in particular, the dub reggae influences (which, though they’ve obviously been part of punk’s dynamic since its inception, have never been much in evidence in her music). And, in the current welter of apolitical sounds, it’s refreshing to see Styrene’s head-on take on political issues, from leather (“I Luv Ur Sneakers”) to environmental exploitation (“White Gold”), warmongering (“Code Pink Dub”) to racism (“Colour Blind”), and poverty to political violence (“No Rockefeller”).
Next time you and your left-liberal posse are looking to fill a dancefloor (happens to me all the time), the tracks that work here are dynamite (and throw Styrene’s introspective 1980 solo album, Translucence into high relief). If I ran the world, I would’ve kicked off with the extremely catchy I “Luv Ur Sneakers” as the first single instead of “Virtual Boyfriend” which seems instantly dated with its references to Myspace and Blackberries. But the feminist anthem here, “Kitsch,” is another killer, as is “White Gold” (lamenting the dominance of the ‘black gold’ paradigm in a world of water). The politics of the aforementioned tracks are cutting-edge and engaged, but at other moments, particularly in songs focusing on race, the lyrics and concerns tend toward a clichéd ‘doesn’t matter if you’re black or white’ sentiment. “Ghoulish” also deals with appearances, seeing Styrene penetrate the masque of a goth (or maybe emo — it’s so hard to tell these days!) acquaintance (“really quite a nice guy”) — an attitude that seems a little incongruous considering her own roots in punk, a look designed to offend without proclaiming an offensive personality if there ever was one. But wait — turns out the song was originally inspired by Michael Jackson. And so, Styrene is capable of captivating surprises: when a song opens with “Love is what we are made of,” we think we know where we’re going, but then we hit “Love is how we’ll disappear,” warranting, in line with the album’s txtese titles, a hearty and delighted WTF?
Speaking of love, there’s an ambiguous New Age (even Christian) spirit scattered in the title track and elsewhere in talk of angels, souls, answers (or lack thereof), and the inheritance of the meek. However, apart from an occasional mention of karma, we don’t see much evidence of Styrene’s Hare Krishna history (though Krishna himself gets a mention), nor are there the problematics of amorphous sonic platitudinalism that plagues so much music associated with New Age. Although as a dub obsessive it saddens me to say it (indeed, it saddens me to say anything critical of anyone as seminal, interesting, and all-round sympathetic as Styrene), it’s mostly the reggae tracks and uninspiring deejay cameos that let the album down — it’s a relief when Styrene cuts back in with her dry, understated yet passionately involved voice, though it is a pleasure to hear the echoes of classic Jamaican dancehall in “Colour Blind’s” slowed-down Sleng Teng riddim and a few Buddy Byes thrown in for good measure.
And while we’re on the question of recycling, Styrene’s relationship with consumerism has always been more accurately described as love-hate (despite her reputation for trashing corporate culture), and this is evident here on tracks like the opener that promote ethical style as ‘conscious consumerism,’ or on “White Gold’s” plea, “where are all the entrepreneurs?” Indeed, it’s the ambiguity of Styrene’s approach to consumer capitalism that marks her out from the anti-herd (even for those who identify deeply with their politics). The combination of anti-hegemonic sentiment with mainstream pop sounds has always been both successful and controversial (if you don’t believe me, ask Green Gartside), but what good’s a (consumer) revolution if we can’t dance?