The original lineup of The Buzzcocks, one of the greatest bands Manchester has ever produced, was led by singer Howard Devoto and his songwriting partner, guitarist Pete Shelley. Six months in, following the early 1977 release of the four-song Spiral Scratch EP, Devoto quit the band. While Devoto went back to college, Shelley became the frontman and helped The Buzzcocks blaze a trail through the punk and early new wave eras, disbanding in 1981 and reforming in 1989. Post-college, Devoto formed Magazine ("Shot by Both Sides"), then Luxuria, with both projects showing more eccentric tendencies and diverse influences than Buzzcocks straight-ahead fast rock sound (as immortalized on the flawless Singles Going Steady).
The new album, Buzzkunst, released by the duo ShelleyDevoto, answers a question most of us have probably never asked. Namely, what would have happened if Howard Devoto had stayed in The Buzzcocks, but he and Pete Shelley had kicked out the rhythm section and brought in a mess of synthesizers and drum machines? Buzzkunst (clever wordplay, that title) features Devoto's lyrics and vocals over Shelley's instrumentation, recorded in Shelley's front room on a PC. And while the pair probably had a lot of fun making the record, unfortunately, it isn't the most enjoyable listen.
Buzzkunst is a diverse collection, with the main thread throughout being Devoto's quirky vocals, which bring to mind such singers as Peter Murphy and Wire's Graham Lewis: slow, deep, and authoritative, often drawing out individual syllables until they almost become words. It's an acquired taste, to be sure. The songs range from the brisk near-rock of "Can You See Me Shining?" and "'Til the Stars in His Eyes Are Dead" to the stomping, Shriekback-esque dance pop of "Self-Destruction" to slow meditations like "Deeper" and "You Are Still There." All are characterized by canned rhythms, swelling synthesizers, and minimal guitar, sounding more like the music of the Reagan-Thatcher era than 2002.
Devoto makes no secret of his literary aspirations (he's currently writing his autobiography), but the snide humor that marked the duo's Buzzcocks songs like "Boredom" and "Orgasm Addict" is generally missing here. Instead, at his best, Devoto paints pictures with his words, like "I'm shining out like I'm towering up in the night/ Shining out brightly from a blackening hole" and "I'm shining out like I'm some mutha of a searchlight/ Searching right down to the bottom of your soul" on the album's opener, "Shining." Elsewhere, he seems transfixed with playing interpersonal power games, as on "A World to Give Away," on which he sings "I know what's mine/ You'll learn what's yours/ I know what you want to see/ You scratch my back and I grow claws/ We're falling in love awkwardly."
I would like to say this record was worth the 25-year wait, that the reunion of Shelley and Devoto is a milestone event. But that would be a gross overstatement, even by someone who loves The Buzzcocks as much as I do. Devoto devotees will probably glom onto this more than I did, as it seems to be his musical and lyrical sensibilities that dominate this album suggesting that it is really his name that should appear first in the project's name.