BLONDIE: NO EXIT (1999)
1) Screaming Skin; 2) Forgive And Forget; 3) Maria; 4) No Exit; 5) Double Take; 6) Nothing Is Real But The Girl; 7) Boom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Room; 8) Night Wind Sent; 9) Under The Gun; 10) Out In The Streets; 11) Happy Dog; 12) The Dream's Lost On Me; 13) Divine; 14) Dig Up The Conjo.
I must confess that, to my ears, the worst thing about post-reunion Blondie is not the quality of the music (inconsistent, but can be gotten used to), not the gloss of the production (they'd turned into a «gloss-oriented» band as early as 1978), not the questionability of the reunion itself (in an age that has essentially stopped producing musical revolutions, veteran reunions should be valued every bit as high as aspiring «new» bands — and, actually, they are) — the saddest thing is the deterioration of Debbie Harry's voice, which is just... well, sad.
I mean, we all age, and we all have to come to terms with the fact that only singers like Tom Waits gain in awesomeness with aging, but some of us age worse than others, and some of us adjust to aging worse than others. In those 17 years that separate The Hunter from No Exit, as one can actually witness in more detail by scrutinizing Debbie's solo career, her voice has sunk, losing a very important part of its higher range and acquiring a late-age «breathiness» — which certainly does not prevent the singer from singing on key, or even singing reasonably well, but a huge chunk of the original appeal was in the sexiness, and this loss makes it painfully obvious that here, in 1999, is a performer struggling to be «sexy», where in the past it all came so naturally. An aging diva throwing a pointless challenge to the unyielding hand of time.
Again, this is a problem that could be circumvented if they tried to make the music suitably different (Marianne Faithfull's Broken English immediately comes to mind under such circumstances) — but nooooo, they are Blondie, they are the supreme royalty of 1970s pop music and they want it to stay that way, besides, they never really fell apart, they just took a long break, right? They want to be picking up from exactly where they left with The Hunter, no, with Autoamerican, because The Hunter was a closing-gap throwaway piece. They want to make a true Blondie album. Loud, arrogant, stylistically diverse, only technically-formally modernized for the new age, but otherwise true to the band's essence.
In many ways, they are still qualified. Not all of the old guys are aboard for the continuation of the ride (Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante either refused to take part or were not involved at all, and even tried to sue the others for using the «Blondie» tag — honestly, though, I don't think it makes much sense to sue Debbie Harry for the use of the word «Blondie», not until she dyes her hair pitch black), but Chris Stein, Jim Destri, and Clem Burke are, and they can still play all their instruments as good as new, and they can still write songs in different styles, covering the usual eclectic grounds: straightforward old school pop rock, mostly, but extending their reach to areas both older than that (lounge jazz and even country-pop) and younger than that (some adult contemporary, some hip-hop).
Yet I have never been properly fascinated by ʽMariaʼ, the big hit single from the album that had the power to throw the band into the spotlight once again — just how many comebacks from veteran bands are accompanied with a #1 single? — but while the melody is undoubtedly catchy and infectious, the «joyful» atmosphere of the song is completely spoiled for me by Debbie's «motherly» tone. The tune's proper intention might simply be to describe the visionary beauty of an unnamed protagonist, but whenever the singer inquires "don't you wanna take her? wanna make her all your own?", I cannot help picturing Debbie Harry as the imposing, self-confident matron in a whorehouse, offering us some appetizing love for sale. Where this «sexiness» thing worked like a charm circa 1976-78, this time there is some sort of awful mismatch between voice, lyrics, and melody that harshly stings the brain on an instinctive level. Good pop song, sure, but it simply should be sung by somebody else.
At this point, I'd say Debbie comes off much better when she is singing sad songs rather than happy ones — which is why I much prefer the second single, ʽNothing Is Real But The Girlʼ. It is just as old-school-catchy as ʽMariaʼ, every single bit, but it has a deeply melancholic spirit instead, with vocal and instrumental melody alike targeted at «ice» rather than «fire», and in this case, the changes in Debbie's voice actually work to her advantage. Likewise, she's still great when singing songs of defiance and self-confidence — the country waltz ʽThe Dream's Lost On Meʼ, as much as I am always skeptical of country waltzes, actually turns out to be the record's most arrogant, gravity-defying number: the lady's "I come out shootin' when trouble comes knockin', I greet bad news by sending it walkin'" sounds totally believable, and if you thought that the last thing you'd ever want to see was a Debbie Harry in a Nashville mood, you might rethink that thought upon hearing the song — regular, conformist, conventional country it ain't.
Some of the «foxy» songs are so cool anyway that the voice factor does not bother me too much — ʽHappy Dogʼ, for instance, a swaggery syncopated blues-rocker with awesome triple-guitar interplay (swampy slide tone + dry distorted «woman tone» + funky rhythm = pure awesomeness indeed!), feels a bit uneasy when she sings "I wanna wag for you baby", and the Stooges reference ("I wanna be your dog") is way too obvious, but the musical arrangement is just so juicy that I always want to look past the voice, to where those guitars are battling each other (way to go, Chris Stein and session guy Paul Carbonara). On the other hand, when she invites you to go ʽBoom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Roomʼ (the lounge jazz song), the results are once again... nervous, to put it mildly.
But anyway, personal impressions aside, a more objective judgement would say that the music on No Exit, as a rule, is quite good. Without pretending to any particular «innovations» (except on the title track, where they try to fuse Toccata In D Minor with nu-metal and a rap part from Coolio — sounds as bizarre as it reads, yes, but it might get your attention), the tracks, one by one, deliver instrumental and vocal hooks, moods, and textures. And this is not really a «Blondie In The 1990s» album — it's just a Blonide album, period. A few of the tracks are fillerish, and the cover of the Shangri-La's ʽOut In The Streetsʼ (a song they'd originally recorded as early as 1975, so this is hyper-nostalgia catching up) is also unnecessary, and the grotesque ska pumping of ʽScreaming Skinʼ lasts about two minutes longer than it should, but leave it to Blondie to end the album on a fascinating mix of tribal music, pop melodies, and Eastern psychedelia and make you suspect that this band still «matters», after all these years (ʽDig Up The Conjoʼ — an unsuspected tribute to ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ, perhaps?).
In fact, I would go as far as state that Harry's, Stein's, and Destri's songwriting talents, on the whole, have managed to retain all of their original sharpness — a rare case for a comeback, and the thumbs up rating is only slightly marred by the fact that, well, they are not young any more, yet they still make music predominantly targeted at a young audience, or, perhaps, at their old audience who want to feel themselves as young as the band members do. Nothing illegitimate or immoral about that, just a tiny whiff of routine fakery that I am sure we can all live with.