When it comes to the popular assessment of a band’s legacy, there’s an unspoken rule that if you do something awesome enough, people will remember and love you for it over time, no matter how dull, lackluster, or downright embarrassing your subsequent work is. This is why Black Sabbath is better known as the band that gave us Paranoid, and not as the band that recorded that song with Ice T in the mid-90s.
Gang of Four’s slow descent into mediocrity has been largely overlooked, primarily on account of the sheer game-changing MAGNITUDE of their debut LP, Entertainment!. The importance of this album is difficult to overstate, in terms of both its immediate impact upon the emergence of what became known as “post-punk” and its continued influence well into the present day. The band’s minimalist funk saddled punk rock’s trenchant ferocity with an irresistible groove, inspiring wave after wave of sound-alike bands throughout Europe and the United States. But the thing that set Gang of Four apart from (and ultimately above) both their contemporaries and their followers was Entertainment!’s unwavering aesthetic purity. There was no shortage of left-leaning university boys railing against capitalism to musical accompaniment in 1979, but few if any managed to dramatize the principles they were proclaiming so effectively in their music. The album’s sound was famously spare and flat, the drums reduced to a dull thud, the staccato guitar figures dried out to a brittle husk. Even the lyrics give the impression that Jon King had started with a treatise on the intersection of capitalism, entertainment, and sexuality, then set about crossing out every other line until what was left was the highly refined essence, the burning magnesium core of a song’s meaning. The end result was an album that perfectly mirrored the culture that Gang of Four meant to expose: something immediately seductive and engrossing, but barren, cold, and sterile at its heart.
In light of that, it’s easy to lose sight of the subsequent efforts from the band that didn’t hold up quite as well. After the equally fierce Solid Gold in 1981, they began exploring the textures of new wave with Songs of the Free. By 1983, they were indistinguishable from the schmaltziest of the new romantics, and their two 90s efforts, Mall and Shrinkwrapped, could have dissolved without a trace into a solution made up of the most forgettable “alternative” bands of the era.
Content (pronounced like the noun, not the adjective) is, in many ways, a “return to form” for the group. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, founding guitar player Andy Gill said that he and King “wanted to try and define the essence of what we’re doing&hellip to go back to your inner self and see what it is that makes you you.” Content is stuffed to the Gills (no pun intended) with the sharp, angular rhythms that made the band’s reputation. King once again takes up some of his favorite preoccupations: the power dynamic inherent to sexual relationships and the futility of seeking fulfillment in a system designed to keep us always hungry for more. Even some of the smaller stylistic flourishes intentionally reference the Gang’s proudest moments, whether it’s the harmonium on “I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face,” the warbling “Morse code” guitar line drifting over the opening of “She Said,” or the soulful female backing vocals on “I Party All the Time.”
Gang of Four seem to be trying to reclaim the glories of their past and haul them, kicking and screaming, into the present. But while Content offers us a view of some of the qualities that made this band great, the album fails to really capture the brilliance and urgency of their earliest works. And primarily at fault here is the production. Gill, who spent his time away from Gang of Four in the studio working with bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Killing Joke, and The Futureheads, piles way too much onto the mix. The guitar sound is layered, dense, and crunchy, something more akin in spirit to the blues-rock riffs that Gill was originally trying to subvert than anything from the band’s glory days. The abundance of studio trickery — simulated record hiss and pops, synthesized electronic whines, rampant vocal manipulation — creates an end product that feels bloated and generic. And while King’s stoic monotone felt at home amid the more threadbare production of Gang of Four’s early work, here he seems to have trouble competing with the busy-ness of everything going on around him.
The songs that work most effectively are the ones that take a more minimal approach. “You Don’t Have to Be Mad” wisely foregrounds Gill’s razor-sharp guitar slashes and Mark Heaney’s lead-heavy, primitive drumbeat. “I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face” enjoys similar success, somehow conjuring something danceable from the space between Thomas McNeice’s glum bass line and Gill’s gaunt, funky guitar. The songs that fare the worst tend to be the straight-ahead rockers. The overall glossiness makes up-tempo tracks like “Who Am I” and “I Party All the Time” sound like they could have been written by Franz Ferdinand.
With a more subtle approach, I think Content could have been a solid late-catalog entry for the band, something on the level of Mission of Burma’s The Sound The Speed The Light. Gill remains a unique and distinctive guitar player, and King is still a skilled musical sloganeer. Whatever virtues the album possesses, however, are enervated by overstuffed production. And the fact that the band has had such an indelible impact on punk and indie music over the past three decades also means that they need to establish their continued relevance amid a sea of artists who have been building meaningfully upon the sonic principles the band originally laid down. Content fails to do this; if anything, it finds Gang of Four falling into step with some of their least inspired imitators. Without the rawness that gave their best work such force and vitality, the band seems likely to, once again, get lost in the very movement that they helped create.