BLONDIE: AUTOAMERICAN (1980)
1) Europa; 2) Live It Up; 3) Here's Looking At You; 4) The Tide Is High; 5) Angels On The Balcony; 6) Go Through It; 7) Do The Dark; 8) Rapture; 9) Faces; 10) T-Birds; 11) Walk Like Me; 12) Follow Me; 13*) Call Me; 14*) Suzy & Jeffrey.
Despite selling even stronger than Eat To The Beat and yielding at least one more iconic Blondie single in ʽRaptureʼ, the band's fifth album was greeted rather coldly by the press — and, in retrospect, seems to have acquired a rather suspicious reputation. Scan the average bunch of people's reactions on the Internet and, even without hearing the album, you will put together a clear picture: on Autoamerican, Blondie try to bite off more than they can chew, going off in a million different directions, but writing dull, bland songs in each one. The fun is gone, replaced by pretense and ambition. This is not the Blondie we used to know and like.
Indeed, it does seem as if something had happened. Judgemental statements aside, Autoamerican is a total downer of an album — in the place of exuberance, arrogance, bright humor, and delayed-teenage happiness (some of which was still in evidence on Eat To The Beat) comes a record whose brief moments of fun-fun-fun are so brief indeed, they almost seem like ironic auto-send-ups in the overall context. They say sometimes that one of the album's pervasive subjects is cars (the title, the spoken bits in ʽEuropaʼ, ʽT-Birdsʼ, the eating cars bit in ʽRaptureʼ), but that looks more like a coincidence to me. What is really pervasive is an overall sense of gloom; not panick or depression as such, more like a dark, disturbing premonition of some hard times to come. If there is one title here that is better suited for the choice of album title, it is ʽDo The Darkʼ — much more telling than Autoamerican, which really says nothing.
Looking at the record this way, as a sort of «Blondie gets sick» signal, is much better than just coming to it in search of another bunch of stellar pop tunes à la ʽDreamingʼ or ʽOne Way Or Anotherʼ. Diversity, as such, has never been this band's enemy: they were exploring different musical styles as early as in 1976, and if there is a little more experimentation here than usual, why should that be a problem? ʽEuropaʼ, the odd neo-classical instrumental that opens the album, will never be deemed a self-standing masterpiece, but it isn't meant to — it simply provides a suitably moody grand opening for the record. In the short run, it was a miscalculation to place it right at the start: after ʽHangin' On The Telephoneʼ and ʽDreamingʼ as classic upbeat openings, people were certainly not prepared to encounter those morose, slightly dissonant strings and that Pink Floydian guitar riff. But today, we are prepared.
The album's centerpiece is ʽRaptureʼ, which we all know, of course, as (a) one of the first examples of rapping recorded by a white artist and (b) that song about the man from Mars who keeps on eating cars and when he's through with cars he's eating bars. What sometimes escapes our attention is the inherent bitterness in the song — no signs of delight or giddiness or happiness, and a lot of mock-irony that actually overwhelms and downplays the absurdity of the rapped lyrics. The song does not celebrate club life; its robotic pulsation and somnambulant vocals play up its dehumanizing aspects rather than anything else. ʽAtomicʼ — now that was a happy disco song. ʽRaptureʼ is dark, creepy, and much closer in spirit to ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ (come to think of it, the man from Mars might just be a different incarnation of the midnight rambler); and when Debbie seductively croons out "...in raaaaaptuuure..." at the end of the sung part, she really truly sounds like an angel. The death angel, that is.
Speaking of angels, ʽAngels On The Balconyʼ, written by Destri, may actually be the best song on the album — another gloomy, smoky pop song that tries to become more cheerful in the bridge section ("they can still see him singing on the corner...") but fails. Empty theater, afterglow, cold outside, fading memories, ghostly lowered voice, cold backing synthesizers, more Bauhaus than Blondie, but with much more «natural» production. The moderately fast tempo and powerful in-between-verse riff suggest that life is still going on, but there's no getting away from past shadows and closet skeletons, want it or not.
Even when they go retro-all-the-way on our asses and toss off a light, 1920s-influenced vaudeville number (ʽHere's Looking At Youʼ), catchy as heck and almost hilariously authentically arranged, its mood and tone are still bitter (it's in the «drowning one's disillusionment and personal grudges in a liquor glass» style of delivery). And then there is the gloomy danceable ʽLive It Upʼ ("your old lover's lying in the gutter"), the gloomy danceable ʽDo The Darkʼ (actually, it is one of the happiest songs on the album — using its darkness-evoking lyrics and snake-charming synth lines to titillate rather than to spook), the midnight jazz balladry of ʽFacesʼ, all drenched in some tragic nostalgia... need I continue?
Against this background, ʽThe Tide Is Highʼ, a cover of an old ska tune by The Paragons (here given a far more lush arrangement that almost turns it into a mariachi band tune), sticks out like a sore thumb. Since the people still loved their Blondie when she was happy much more than when she was feeling like shit, they had no problem pushing it all the way up to No. 1 (and, perhaps, subconsciously they were aided by the chorus line "I'm gonna be your number one" as well?), but it is not at all indicative of the overall atmosphere of the record. It's just that they needed a hit, and Mike Chapman obviously felt that the only surefire hit by Blondie is a happy hit, so here it is. It's a jolly good cover, too, but these days it feels a bit... slight, perhaps, against the general heavy weight of the record.
On the whole, I would go as far as agreeing that Autoamerican represents «the beginning of the end». This is an evolved band, one that has already tasted its best taste of happiness and success and is now embracing «post-maturity». This gloomy style does not come to them as naturally as the giddy style of their early records, but it isn't faked, either. The songwriting is kinda limp in places (ʽWalk Like Meʼ, for instance, sounds like a lifeless shadow of their once brashly arrogant approach), but more than half of the record is still comprised of great tunes — also, if you get the reissued remastered version, ʽCall Meʼ, the band's biggest hit single, is on there as well, one of the grandest songs of the disco-rock era, though, like all such specially commandeered songs (for the soundtrack of American Gigolo, in this case), it is rather faceless, though undeniably catchy. In any case, unlike the original band's last album, Autoamerican, whether you like it or not, is an integral and necessary-to-know part of the band's legacy. Personally, I am quite partial to its disgruntled spirit, and have no problem with a strong thumbs up rating — it's not my fault, and, come to think of it, it's not even their fault that somebody would categorically refuse to accept them in any mode other than «power pop», which this record does not even try to be.