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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Blondie: Pollinator


1) Doom Or Destiny; 2) Long Time; 3) Already Naked; 4) Fun; 5) My Monster; 6) Best Day Ever; 7) Gravity; 8) When I Gave Up On You; 9) Love Level; 10) Too Much; 11) Fragments.

Okay, I am going to assume that the album title is a simple reference to Debbie Harry's interest in beekeeping (something that was also reflected in the accompanying tour)... because if it is not, some very disturbing implications are on the way. Then again, we certainly live in a world when the ripe age of 72 is by no means a rigid impediment on the way of, um, some good old pollina­tion, or is it? Anyway, let us not forget that, for all of Debbie's legendary sexuality, the songs were always much more about emotional than physical proximity, and Pollinator is no exception. The important question is not how Debbie handles her sexuality at this time — it is whether, after two disappointing albums in a row, there is any reason at all to be concerned about yet another album from a band that almost ridiculously refuses to die.

Of one thing I am totally sure: Pollinator is a surprising improvement over its two predecessors. Surprising, yes, but perhaps not unpredictable: one could have guessed that after a long period of trying to «adapt» to current fashions, the band would eventually just fuck it and return to their roots — good old pop-rock with steady Seventies' beats. For the first time since No Exit, they seem fully content to simply sound like themselves, with one questionable exception: their new keyboard player, Matt Katz-Bohen, who still seems bent on not only privatizing the band's sound, but also on turning them into as much of a 21st century synth-pop ensemble as possible. Perhaps if he had a knack for extracting simple, but emotionally effective patterns from those keyboards (something like Arcade Fire's ʽSprawl IIʼ, for instance), it would have been okay, but too many of these synth barriers just sound like formulaic techno-pop, and end up robotizing Harry's presence as well. But yes, it is also true that his keyboards are the only thing that put the music squarely into the modern age — that, and the singer's aging voice.

Once again, very few songs are written by Blondie members themselves. The Harry/Stein duet is represented on only two tracks, the first of which, ʽDoom Or Destinyʼ, opens the album on a par­ticularly retro note — they even feature Joan Jett on backing vocals! — with big Clem Burke drums, fast chugging guitar, and Debbie's vocals ever so slightly cosmetized to get her back that sardonic, spitfire flavor of youth. It does not really work, of course: the chorus hook is just an endless repeat of the question "is it doom or destiny?", and there is no way that the enthusiasm of youth could be properly rekindled now, but already the fact that they are able to run through it without falling flat on their faces speaks for something. The second one, ʽLove Levelʼ, is also a stand out due to its heavy dependence on brass fanfare, which still has to clash with Katz-Bohen's bubbling electro-pop synth brew, but is fun nevertheless.

On the other end of the spectrum is the album's most, if not only, modern-sounding number: ʽFunʼ, provided for Blondie by a bunch of corporate songwriters and the producer of TV On The Radio, sounds like a 2010s take on Modern Talking and could be done by just about any dance-pop outfit in the world. Forty years ago that vibe, though it always sounded silly, was at least novel; these days, it no longer has the benefit of starry-eyed innocence. But I can understand, somebody told them that they still had to grind out a hit single and they obliged — in fact, they did make it into a hit single, their highest charting one since ʽMariaʼ, making the idea of Hot Dance Rhythms For Young People all the more ironic. Can't help admiring the achievement, though: even Cher was only 52 when she recorded ʽBelieveʼ.

Personally, I am much more a fan of the B-side, ʽMy Monsterʼ, written by none other than Johnny Marr himself, who also contributes his trademark guitar to the recording (unfortunately, it is once again all but swallowed up by the synthesizers). This is a much more Blondie-like song, from the steady 4/4 beat to the opening "human beings are stupid things when we're young" to the oh-so-well-known Blondie ability to go from bitter irony to gentle romanticism and back at a moment's notice. There are several more songs like that here — ʽBest Day Everʼ, co-written with Nick Valensi of The Strokes; ʽWhen I Gave Up On Youʼ, written by YouTube resident musical comedians The Gregory Brothers specially for Blondie in Blondie style (but also featuring their trademark Autotune tricks on Debbie's voice); ʽLong Timeʼ, co-written by Debbie with Dev Hynes of Blood Orange with obvious echoes of ʽHeart Of Glassʼ embedded in the rhythmic patterns and in the keyboard melody. None of this is great, but all of it is more fun than ʽFunʼ, and the textural diversity is quite refreshing.

Above and beyond everything, I am very happy about how Debbie sounds throughout this, even when they are torturing her voice with unnecessary autotuning. Unless you concentrate very hard upon comparison with classic Blondie songs, complaining about how much of her former range she has lost, there are really very few indications of how old that voice is — there are, however, plenty of indications that the fire of life is still very, very bright within the old girl. Those catfight dramas, those emotional turmoils, those fits of ecstasy or ire that made the original records so much more than just a collection of empty hooks — they are all here, even if the hooks them­selves are far less stronger than they used to.

It all comes together on the final track, ʽFragmentsʼ, taken by Blondie from an unknown song­writer, Adam Johnston: ironically, the songwriter was 17 years old when he wrote the song, yet its message — "you can't create more time, you just make it" — agrees more than perfectly with the mindset of the aged diva, and the frantic chorus-question, "do you love me now? do you love me now?", sounds as if it is really addressed to all of us rather than some imaginary lover figure. Don't worry, Ms. Harry: you could have done a lot worse than this, we do love you still, and here's a thumbs up to "fucking prove it". (But could you please bring back Jimmy Destri for your next album? This Katz-Bohen guy is just untenable).

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