Nostalgia is a feeling that commonly arises when trying to define a musical experience. Not only is any kind of new music built up following some sort of tradition — or going against it — but the memory mechanisms always trigger resemblances, connections, and references to the history of our perceptual experience. The way we understand the musical present is mediated then by means of an idealization of a glorious, archetypical past. Blondie is certainly one of these icons capable of evoking nostalgic emotions within a conflictive temporal placement: when a band reaches 37 years of existence, it’s almost impossible to cut off the reminiscences of past times and therefore difficult to listen to new songs without comparing them to the pop gems the band composed during their pinnacle. Thus, the duality of expecting the band to replicate their trademark sound from the classic punk era or to catch up with present-day musical tendencies creates an unsteady a priori negative judgment.
Weirdly, on Panic of Girls, Blondie decided to choose the most uncertain path, an awkward combination of fake nostalgia and rancid freshness, exemplified visually by its cool cover (by dutch painter Chris Berens , an artist who could be defined as Hieronymus Bosch for the Photoshop generation) and musically by the first single “Mother”: the song’s concept and video constitute an homage to the late-90s nightclub in New York of the same name while paradoxically yearning for a musical sound that actually did not take place. The zombie theme of the video even fits this Beckian concept of present-day’s pop as a zombie institution that no longer sustains the identity and consciousness of individuals: music that is neither alive nor completely dead, desperately biting off and chewing pieces of musical flesh from several existent genres, without ever acquiring a life of its own.
This could be attributed to the current liquified tendencies in sound engineering, the same sonic standards that producer Jeff Saltzman was prompting circa 2004 (e.g., The Killers) and tries to insert trivially throughout this album, with the inconvenience that they sound extremely dated by now. So it seems that, in the refined world of music actuality, seven years is indeed a very long time, although ironically no one is claiming to be nostalgic for that remote and forgotten era when the ‘mammal’ revival genres ruled the land and ‘dinosaur’ genres — e.g., electroclash — were already extinct. But in songs like “D-Day,” the electro-pop fetish resurfaces constantly, along with a new-new-wave recycled aesthetic in “What I Heard” or “Love Doesn’t Frighten Me.”
Overall, most of the songs contain commonplace structures, with sometimes decent but quickly forgettable riffs, remarkable and forceful drums courtesy of Dr. Clem Burke, while Chris Stein’s guitar work goes frequently unnoticed. But the general feeling of this album is one of a disjointed creation, never finding a proper place along that simulated nostalgic trip. Illustrating this, we can find several bizarre moments, such as the ‘gloria-estefanesque’ “Wipe Off My Sweat” (with an embarrassing “Papi, papi!” refrain), cheap synths and pseudo-reggae in “The End, The End,” a harmless chanson (“Le Bleu”), or a phony patois accent in “Girlie Girlie.” The choice of covers is odd as well, aiming at the same uncomfortable zone irradiated by the other songs on the album. In the mellow, reggae-ish reinterpretation of Beirut’s “Sunday Smile,” for instance, even the drums seem out of place, and Zach Condon’s guest trumpet lines add nothing new to an already confused song.
Perhaps the true jewel and surprise in this album is the bonus track — also a cover — “Mírame.” Here, Harry sings in cheaply Auto-Tuned Spanish, and the piece mimics accurately the instrumentation and arrangements of Latin American tecnocumbia from the early 90s. There is no sense of nostalgia here, only pure awkwardness and honest decadence that take the definition of ‘kitsch’ to unexpected artistic levels.