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Friday, August 24, 2012

The B-52's: Cosmic Thing


1) Cosmic Thing; 2) Dry County; 3) Deadbeat Club; 4) Love Shack; 5) Junebug; 6) Roam; 7) Bushfire; 8) Channel Z; 9) Topaz; 10) Follow Your Bliss.

Three years into Ricky's death, with Keith Strickland switching to guitars and keyboards from drums, the B-52's once again appeared on the scene. Three years can be a long time, though, and this is not quite the same old B-52's we used to know. If there is an objective proof for that, it would be the almost unexpected commercial success — Cosmic Thing went quadruple platinum, spawned a whole bunch of hugely popular singles, and turned the band from semi-underground club favorites into a mainstream attraction. The closest analogy to this whole situation that I can think of is the 1987 «comeback» of Aerosmith.

The good news is that the B-52's did not have to sink to the same bottom of the tastelessness pond that Aerosmith chose to: Cosmic Thing preserves a large chunk of the old spirit, humor, sarcasm, and wittiness. But things have changed. All of the songs here sound extremely polished — calcu­lated, measured, rehearsed, with no space at all left to the delightfully unpredictable «hooliganry» of old. This becomes less surprising when one learns that the album was produced by Nile Rod­gers, the slickness master behind Chic, Bowie's Let's Dance, Madonna's Like A Virgin, and, most notably, Mick Jagger's seminal masterpiece She's The Boss; but that does not make the con­trast between Wilson-era and post-Wilson-era B-52's any less jarring.

Still, it makes little sense to complain. It is clear that after the shock of 1986, the B-52's could no longer be quite the same, and, besides, they were ten years older than when they started — and had every right to polish up their sound, adjusting it to their current age. At least none of these songs sound «unnatural» or, God forbid, «nostalgic». And, furthermore, at the end of the day what really matters is whether these songs have hooks (they have), show intelligence (they do), and manage to cleverly bypass or tone down the sonic clichés of late 1980s pop.

The latter is actually quite important: the music relies on a healthy mix of real drums, guitars, and keyboards (most of them supplied by a host of session musicians; Strickland is the only band member credited with a lot of instrumental work). It is sometimes mildly spoiled with electronic en­hancement, but, on the whole, Cosmic Thing does not come across as something tightly tied to the year of 1989 — most of it could have been recorded, say, in 1981. Only one track, ʽChannel Zʼ, bears the «experimental» trademarks of generic late-Eighties dance-pop, and might therefore polarize audiences; I think it actually works, and the robotic dance-pop arrangement fits in well with the song's thematic message ("I am livin' on Channel Z, getting nothing but static, static in my attic from Channel Z"), but any band that goes all the way from ʽRock Lobsterʼ to ʽChannel Zʼ goes a long way indeed, and once you remember that, it gets a little disturbing.

The big hits — ʽLove Shackʼ, ʽRoamʼ, ʽDeadbeat Clubʼ — are all catchy, pleasant enough pop tunes, and now they mostly work on the contrast between Fred Schneider's eternally nerdy vocals (one thing that hasn't changed a bit since the early days) and Kate and Cindy's now-well-disciplined singing. The reason why they became so popular probably has to do with the «party atmosphere», particularly on ʽLove Shackʼ, which one could almost see coming from the likes of Prince — of course, as usual, the new generation of fans mostly missed the irony. It would be much harder to miss it on ʽDeadbeat Clubʼ, one of the most sentimental tributes to wasting one's life away in the history of pop music, but I suppose that it can be done, too — there are, after all, quite a lot of people who are genuinely happy to belong to the «Deadbeat Club».

Meanwhile, ʽJunebugʼ and ʽBushfireʼ are fast-tempo pop-rockers that mostly get by on the strength of their vocal hooks (wonderful arrangements of the girls' vocals on ʽBushfireʼ, in parti­cular); ʽTopazʼ is a lightly anthemic bit of musical utopia with an atmosphere of disarming inno­cence; and the final instrumental ʽFollow Your Blissʼ is romantic surf-pop with electronic over­tones that certainly makes much more sense than ʽWork That Skirtʼ, for instance.

Essentially, I cannot fault any of these songs — not a single one of them ever drifts towards adult contemporary (an easy temptation) or completely generic dance-pop that places most of its faith in the beat rather than the melody; and I am certainly less troubled about the commercial win of Cosmic Thing than about the insane popularity of late-era Aerosmith, and join the fray with an assured thumbs up. But nobody who wants to understand what the B-52's were «all about» should ever begin with Cosmic Thing, because this here party is set up according to strict rules, whereas classic era B-52's rarely ever gave a damn about rules in the first place.

Check "Cosmic Thing" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Cosmic Thing" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. Ricky is sorely missed here and as a result the album tends to sound a little watered down. The B-52's have never before sounded as normal as they do here, which may account for why this album was so dang successful. Regardless it's an easy album to listen to, pretty much every song has a good hook or two, and it doesn't sound as "80s" as the band's last two albums. Roam and Deadbeat Club in particular are favourites of mine, terrific songs both.

  2. Call me mediocre, but on this album I began to understand all the accolades that this band has received through the previous years.

    I started to dig B-52's from here, but I still cannot stand their first albums. Especially the first one.

  3. Excellent review. I enjoy very much your writing, George, and even though this was published years ago, I find myself listening to the B-52s on Itunes and what you write rings very true. As much as I love Love Shack and the lazy 1990s style Friends couch sitting ditty about a Deadbeat Club, that in some ways harkened the 1990s, I still think that the best of the B-52s came at the very beginning.