We should all age as well as The Buzzcocks have. More than a quarter century after forming, the Manchester punk band has delivered what may well be the best of its seven studio albums, one that even approaches the heights of the stellar Singles Going Steady collection.
Half my lifetime ago, in 1986, I bought my first Buzzcocks record. And, as much as I was drawn to their hard-charging guitars and drums, their oft-humorous lyrics and the voices that delivered them, it bummed me out to learn that the band was already defunct and wouldn't be bringing me any more tales of adolescent heartbreak. Needless to say, then, one of my happiest moments was seeing The Buzzcocks a few years later on their 1989 reunion tour. This was followed in due time by the band's first new studio release in more than a decade. That album, Trade Test Transmissions, set the standard for their subsequent studio releases, All Set and Modern: very good, but short of their earlier greatness, marked by a restless experimental vibe that resulted in semi-quirky songs lacking the impact of much of their classic buzzsaw work of the 1970s. The music remained recognizable as Buzzcocks Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle's unique vocals alone make them stand out but the length of some songs, slower tempos, and synthesizer and guitar effects didn't quite work for me.
The new album, simply titled Buzzcocks, is clearly calculated to evoke memories of days past, from the photocopy-quality front cover and typewriter-style Courier font on the lyrics sheet to the full-throttle, urgent tempo of the songs and the brisk total running time (12 cuts in just over a half hour). And damn if it doesn't work. Further enhancing this sense of the old made new is the specter of Buzzcocks founding member Howard Devoto, who co-wrote two of these songs with Shelley: the outstanding "Stars," a remake of a track from last year's underwhelming collaboration on the ShelleyDevoto album, and "Lester Sands."
But this is no mere attempt to revisit glories of the past; these songs are written by men in their 40s, and the words emanating from their pens reflect this. The opening track, "Jerk," establishes this, as a grown-up Pete Shelley apologizes to a lover he has wronged where the younger Shelley may well have cast the blame elsewhere, here he's facing up to the fact that, well, he's been a jerk. Musically, the band effortlessly locks into the their classic sound, with a keening lead guitar dancing around the amped-up rhythm guitar, bass and drums and Diggle adding some tasteful "oohs" on the chorus.
Elsewhere, "Keep On" tackles the subject of the artist's way (the frequent interplay between depression and self-expression, not the self-help book), while Diggle's "Wake Up Call" and Shelley's "Morning After" both take on the new day from very different angles. The former is a kick in the pants to get up and live your dreams instead of merely dreaming them, while the latter laments the effects of another night spent down at the boozer.
The album closer, "Useless" practically an epic on this record, clocking in at just over four minutes carries an intriguing double meaning. Where it may simply be another ode to the frustrations of love gone wrong ("I never witnessed the moment/ When all you ever wanted was me"), it strikes me that this is also the frustration of a pioneering band that gets plenty of adoration from punters like me but next to nil from the general public (so many derivative bands have sold oodles of records by watering down the Buzzcocks genius while the progenitors languish in relative obscurity).
This is an astonishing return to form for The Buzzcocks, as they stick to what they do best: sing about what they know and use their instruments to make that blur of sound that longtime fans know and love. Go out and buy this record. Hell, pick up two copies and give one to a friend. Spread the word: The Buzzcocks are back, making incredibly vital music that you need to hear if you've a punk rock bone in your body.