BLONDIE: GHOSTS OF DOWNLOAD (2014)
1) Sugar On The Side; 2) Rave; 3) A Rose By Any Name; 4) Winter; 5) I Want To Drag You Around; 6) I Screwed Up; 7) Relax; 8) Take Me In The Night; 9) Make A Way; 10) Mile High; 11) Euphoria; 12) Take It Back; 13) Backroom; 14*) Put Some Color On You; 15*) Can't Stop Wanting; 16*) Prism.
The release of this album was accompanied by a most strange marketing move: it was issued only as an integral part of a 2-CD package, collectively called Blondie 4(0) Ever and containing, in addition to the main disc with 13 new songs, a Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux disc with new studio re-recordings of 11 «classic» songs, «to commemorate the band's 40th anniversary», so it was stated in press releases. Weird way to go about it, if you ask me, but then marketing does often work in weird ways — who am I, next to an experienced marketologist, to measure the degree of weirdness to which the average buyer's mind can be professionally attuned?
Anyway, we will not be concentrating on these re-recordings: based on brief snippets that I have heard, they are all technically very close to the originals, Debbie's aged voice being the main differentiating factor, and I assume they just did this out of sheer fun, to check whether they still could or could not recreate their old schtick in a bookish manner. And still another possible factor is the effect of contrast — because with Ghosts Of Download, they have now moved away as far from the old schtick as is humanly possible. The only link is that they are still a pop ensemble (as opposed to, say, Napalm Death or Tokyo String Quartet), on a mission to churn out catchy pop songs. Everything else is different.
Logically continuing the line that was barely hinted at on The Curse and had very much solidified with Panic, Ghosts Of Download is almost completely dependent on electronics; in genrist terms, it is one of those «electropop» records (I believe that «techno» is now considered uncool) that trade live instrumentation for programmed loops and beats because it shows how modern, trendy, and advanced you are (well, at least it used to — I am not that sure about the situation as of 2014). Not surprisingly, upon first listen I hated it with all the instinctive passion I could muster: everything sounded tasteless, stupid, and annoying to the max.
As the first nasty impressions clear away, though, I have to admit that the songs here are not really «bad» as such. The lyrics, the basic melodic hooks, the relative levels of complexity and diversity — a lot of work, and perhaps even a little inspiration, must have certainly been involved in the construction of the album. At the very least, it is incomparably more interesting than, say, Britney Spears' Femme Fatale, just as an example off the top of my head — even though it is rather a sad state of affairs when you find yourself inclined to draw a comparison between Blondie and Britney Spears in the first place.
Again, most of the songs feature outside songwriters, although either Harry or Stein or, usually, both of them, share the credits with outsiders. There are also plenty of guest appearances by trendy hip-hop, R&B, and LGBT people (Los Rakas, Miss Guy, Beth Ditto — thank you, Ms. Harrie, for introducing us to so many here-today-gone-tomorrow personalities!), which sometimes makes sense (ʽA Rose By Any Nameʼ, featuring Beth Ditto, is a pro-gay anthem) and sometimes does not (the Spanish rap on ʽI Screwed Upʼ feels quite out of place to me), but, in any case, they are not there to make or not to make sense, but to establish a link between the older and the newer generations. Do they? Perhaps they do — the only problem is, in 50 years people will still be returning to those Blondie albums, but whether they will still be interested in Los Rakas seems much more questionable to me.
Only one tune on the entire record feels completely «authentic» to me: ʽWinterʼ, relatively free of the electronic coating, is a mid-tempo introspective rocker with Harrie's vocals mixed properly upfront and moving gracefully up the scale from verse to bridge to chorus as she picks on some poor soul for being too cold. It was not a single, it did not get any airplay, it does not feature any guest stars or particularly noticeable gimmicks, but to me, it feels like the absolute best that Ghosts Of Download have to offer me.
Still, I have no intentions of badmouthing the rest of the songs: I just don't feel like talking about them. Many of them do have the «Blondie sneer» alright, and after two or three listens, most of the choruses get properly stuck in your head — but I do not feel the ability to connect to these not-too-inventive electronic grooves. Perhaps they have been regretting, through all these years, about having disbanded way too early in the Eighties to give the world a proper synth-pop album, and now seek that extra profit, by way of the «Eighties' nostalgia wave» that seems to have swept over the population and still not dissipated? If so, how wonderful it is that they had missed that window — first, reunion albums are always easier to ignore than non-reunion albums, second, at least Ghosts has the added benefits of improved technology and a more complexly layered approach to integrating electronics with real instruments. For instance, ʽI Want To Drag You Aroundʼ has some sitars interacting with the shit-synths — probably synthesized as well, but if they went synth-pop in the Eighties, there would hardly have been a sitar break on this song at all.
Their retro kick still occasionally flares up in the strangest places: for instance, there is a long, multi-part version of the old hit ʽRelaxʼ (Frankie Goes To Hollywood!) — more famous for its controversial, free-all-inhibitions music video, if I remember right, than anything else. But musically, the song is so trivial and repetitive (I'd even say «manipulative» if there was anything to manipulate) that the purpose of reviving it escapes me. Unless, of course, it is accompanied by a video of Chris Stein and Matt Katz-Bohen engaging in simulated anal sex, while a leather-clad Harrie puts the whip to both ("relax, don't do it, when you wanna come" is a pretty good tagline for such a special occasion).
On the whole, not even the hooks will prevent me from a thumbs down here. Fact is, I have always loved my Blondie for their moods — punkish and arrogant, sarcastically sexy, romantically gloomy, whatever — and Ghosts Of Download have too much of a plastic coating to reveal those moods to me. They are there, but you have to «tolerate» many elements of the production in order to enjoy them properly — elements that add nothing of significance and are really only there so that the band members can point to them and state, «see, we are not old farts, and we have some documental evidence for that». But really, Debbie and Chris, you do not need to take lessons from Lady Gaga to prove that you're still savvy about the 21st century. There's plenty of better teachers around, honest. Provided you need teachers in the first place.