It’s a well-known fact that the world should have ended in 1979. The first blush of punk’s gutter-born idealism was spent by the end of 1977, leaving an entire generation of misfits to curdle in the waning light of the decade’s fall-of-Rome decadence. The kids went feral, driven insane by drugs and grinding poverty; they played music like it was a just a concept they’d read about in books. No-wave was the end-point — of punk, of music, of civilization in general. What I’m saying is, no-wave and nostalgia aren’t concepts that sit well together. No one involved was supposed to live that long. Most of you reading this should never even have been born. So what are we, then, to make of a new Contortions album in 2016?
Whether you’ve been aware of it or not, James Chance has been with us all along, recasting himself in various incarnations: James White & The Blacks, James Chance & Terminal City, and most recently in 2012 with his European outfit, James Chance & Les Contortions. Each of these permutations accentuated different facets of the stew of African American musical styles that Chance sought to fold into his spiritually desiccated post-punk amalgamations. Fans would be forgiven for inferring that Chance’s reclamation of his original band name hinted at some sort of reunion, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. No one who worked with Chance on his seminal albums is credited in the liner notes, and the only band member that he seems to have deep history with is guitar player Tomas Doncker, with whom he performed at some point during the 1980s. Yet The Flesh Is Weak does have the unmistakable air of a Contortions record, striking an abrupt about-face back to the jagged funk of his early days.
This sensation of relapse is helped along by the fact that some of these songs have a very long history. Despite its relatively obscure beginnings on a limited-run Japanese EP, “Melt Yourself Down” has found its way onto quite a few of Chance’s many live records. While its latest incarnation sheds some of the ferocity of its evolutionary forerunners, it provides a good showcase for how tight the latest model of the Contortions is. Doncker makes his guitar sing over Eric Klaastad juicy, center-cut bass slabs. The crispness of the production allows each element to breath in its own space, from Richard Dwarkin’s nimble rhythms to the shrieks of Chance’s Farifsa. Visions of fascist atrocity seem to be dancing in Chance’s head in lieu of sugar plums. His ode to self-annihilation takes a frighteningly literal turn in newly written verses that bring us on a tour of the Nazi death camps and Imperial Japan.
Chance chases that down with the title track, probably the finest of Flesh’s original offerings. The song’s proclamation of moral dissipation is Chance at his most incisive and irreverent, positing a speaker burning with a desire to follow The Lord, but pulled down by venal urges: “I’ve got esoteric tastes that are wasted on the masses/ They say my tastes can be replaced if I take my Bible classes.” Its Orwellian view of Christianity is equal turns funny and discomforting, a delicate balance of moods born out in the juxtaposition of the track’s buoyant brass flourishes and the sinister, chugging bass line beneath.
Most of the other notable tracks are covers or reprises of previous recordings (or, in the unique case of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” both). There’s something very satisfying imagining how Frank Sinatra would react upon hearing Chance sneer his way through “That’s Life,” subtly tweaking the chorus to make it more wholly his own: “I’ve been a punk, a pirate, a pauper, a poet, a pawn, and a king.” The more straight-faced approach on crooner standard “I Who Have Nothing” feels mawkish by comparison. Splitting the distance between the two is “The Splurge,” a song that began life as an instrumental on Chance’s 1996 live album Molotov Cocktail Lounge and showed up as the eight-minute-plus “Do the Splurge,” with a brand new set of lyrics on Les Contortion’s Incorrigible!. The Flesh version maintains the cucumber-cool vibes of the previous one, but shaves off the extended instrumental interludes to bring it back to a leaner five and a half minutes.
The Flesh Is Weak is Chance’s most energetic record in a good long while. Although it spends too much time looking backwards to avoid the accusations of nostalgia altogether, its more abrasive textures are a welcome reprieve from his jazzier late-career output. In a world that stubbornly refuses to end, an artist has no choice but to create. In that case, I wouldn’t mind listening to a few more albums like this one.