Return Of The Maninblack

He's got a new zenitude.

As Elastica's wonderfully derivative "Waking Up" reminded everyone back

in 1995, the Stranglers, of all the late `70s "punk" bands, have perhaps

left the most enduring musical (as opposed to sociological) legacy of

that era -- in part because in at least one sense, they weren't punks at

all but experienced pub-rock vets who knew how to play their instruments

right from the get-go, as evidenced on their debut album Rattus

Norvegicus onwards through misanthropic classics like No More

Heroes and Black And White.

Attitudinally, however, the band may have well outdone the rest; there's

no doubt that, no matter how big his mouth may have been, John "Rotten"

Lydon would have have never actually messed with the likes of the rugged

Stranglers' main men, singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell (never mind his

Ph.D in biochemistry) and his second-in-command, bassist and karate

black-belt Jean Jacques Burnel. As various music journalists found out

at the time, to do so was to invite some very real, physical

repercussions (somewhere, Tricky and Marilyn Manson were taking notes).

Nevertheless, despite the band's brutal sonic attack and gutter-rat

imagery on raunch-rockers like "Down In The Sewer" and "Bring On The

Nubiles," a pop sensibility, heard on their brilliant

psychedelic cover of Bacharach and David's "Walk On By," was also in

evidence. And as they made their way into the '80s, while most of their

less imaginative punk contemporaries vanished or lapsed into

self-parody, the Stranglers miraculously morphed from psychedelic thugs

into a mystical pop band -- the "Meninblack" -- creating moody gems like

"Duchess," "Golden Brown" (a thinly-veiled ode to smack, the possession

of which Cornwell was jailed for in 1980) and "Strange Little Girl,"

tracks that sound as fresh today as when they were first recorded.

By the dawn of the current decade, however, the band had run out of gas,

reduced to covering "96 Tears" and "All Day and All of the Night" to

fill out uninspired albums. Cornwell departed in a cloud of acrimony,

and while a shell of a unit that calls itself the Stranglers still

lumbers around the U.K., this new solo release by the Head Strangler

marks a return to the pop-rock he perfected on albums such as

Feline (1982) and Aural Sculpture (1984); in fact, the

latter's producer, Laurie Latham, is tellingly back on board here. From

its title -- Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Suit -- onward, this

is an album that evokes Cornwell's golden pop songwriting period with

his former band.

"Snapper," for example, is a cleverly constructed piece of melodic

pop-rock that sticks in your head -- it cleverly celebrates the joys of

eating fish while also inviting itself to be read in a more Freudian

context (we're talking pussy, not fish, you see). Likewise, "Hot Head"

couches another double entendre in a memorable pop hook, while the

jagged, Stranglers-esque title track (with Dave Greenfield's signature

keys deftly imitated) makes reference to those mysterious black-clad

figures that Cornwell's old band once dedicated an entire album to.

"Long Dead Train," meanwhile, the album's hardest rocker (Cornwell has

returned to playing his rather unique brand of lead guitar, enlivening

the album as a whole), addresses the singer's split from his old musical

mates, adopting a Zen attitude toward it all:

Sometimes you're gonna have to get lost

Sometimes the dice are already tossed

Don't worry there's no hurry

Somedays there's some love to be found

Some nights you gotta sleep on the ground

Don't worry there's no hurry

I just got off a long gone dead train

In other words, don't look for that Stranglers reunion any time soon.

And if Cornwell can continue to come up with the goods as he does here

on standout tracks such as "Torture Garden" and "House Of Sorrow" --

which might best be generically described as "psychedelic dark-wave" --

and avoid obvious commercial filler such as "Nerves Of Steel" and the

trite "Endless Day Endless Night" (whose backing vocals seemed mainly

designed to piss off ex-bandmate Burnel, being an exact simulacra of the

latter's style), perhaps he can avoid the fate that's befallen everyone.


VMAs 2017