In guy years, 50 is an age that one naturally associates with dads more than lads. So it may come as a surprise that Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle have just released their eighth album together as co-leaders of Buzzcocks a full three decades after the Manchester band first formed. Just as surprising is that it continues the band's strong run of albums here in the 21st Century, showing that 1999's mediocre Modern was an outlier rather than just an excuse for the band to tour and play the hits one more time.
While not as dark, muscular or streamlined as the band's excellent, eponymously titled 2003 album, Flat-Pack Philosophy grows better and better with each listen. Initial spins reminded me why I always preferred Buzzcocks' punkier material, such as the bulk of the classic Single Going Steady compilation, to its flirtations with new-wave sounds. But beneath Flat-Pack Philosophy's occasional bits of keyboards, samples and vocal effects lies a rock solid set of songs that coalesce loosely around consumer culture and the co-opting, commodification and disposable nature of… well, just about everything. It's not a concept album, per se, but more of a thematic collection, rather akin to the way that The Smiths explored human brutality on Meat Is Murder without limiting the subject to cruelty toward animals.
The album-opening title track finds Shelley throwing out something akin to a thesis statement, the question-and-answer "Why am I here?/ What are we living for?/ All of my hopes, dreams and desires/ Assembly required/ That's flat-pack philosophy" bits shouted down with a simple, purely punk "So when my thoughts make me depressed/ I think the best and fuck the rest." If it seems like a retro throwback to the '80s, that's as much a product of this current decade's return to plastick-y me-ness as an indictment of the singer's age. Returning to a more classic, almost archetypal Buzzcocks subject and sound, Shelley delivers "Wish I Never Love You," two-and-a-half minutes of brilliant vocal harmonies, concise lead and muscular rhythm guitars, and the titular sentiments as the man blames himself as much as his lost love for the mess he's in. It takes two? Oh yes.
Adopting a bouncy, stuttery, almost swingin' sound, the rhythm and riffage of "I Don't Exist" works as a neat counterpoint against the pessimistic cast of the lyrics, Shelley bemoaning that special someone's lack of time for and understanding of him. The Portuguese-quoting "Reconciliation" finds him begging for just that, while both the machine-tweaked "God, What Have I Done" (which alludes to a temperamental Latin lover the man gets around!) and the ringing tones of "Dreamin'" find our Pete drawing on a deep reservoir of teen angst and still feeling guilty after all these years. One of the album's few missteps, "Credit" drags out the old canard that money especially that which is spent before it's earned can't buy happiness. The whooping vocal gymnastics and keening guitars of "I've Had Enough" mark it as a number that should stand strongly with the '70s material in their live set.
As always, Diggle offers up a handful of curveballs to Shelley's tales of the
heart. The simple, straightforward "Sell You Everything" again brings 100 percent
pure Buzzcocks goodness in a tight little package, a whining lead riff standing
up to the blurry crunch of the rhythm guitar on the chorus, where Shelley steps
up to lend a vocal assist to his longtime chum. Things go more than a tad Orwell
on the stately, slowed-down "Big Brother Wheels," while the galloping "Between
Heaven and Hell" just screams closing track, Diggle taking on the tone of an
elder statesman as he drops clichés and then proceeds to shoot them down.
I've said it before, and I hope to say it again when the band drops another new album in a few years: we should all age as well as Buzzcocks have.