Wouldn’t it be nice if we were married? That’s the question Brian Wilson, halfway between elation and madness, posed on Pet Sounds, a 1966 album whose choirboy harmonies resonated from Southern California to South Wales, home of a pre-teen Green Gartside. The Beach Boys’ earnest pre-marital query never seemed to interest Gartside, architect of Scritti Politti’s inquisitions of the love-song form. For that matter, neither did their sunny California pop; Scritti began with scratchy postpunk, then switched to smooth soul, funk, and reggae. But now Gartside is a first-time newlywed—at 51—with a gorgeous new one-man-band album, White Bread Black Beer, that shows he’s started thinking about the decade when both he and Wilson came of age.
What, the ’60s? How can that be? Scritti Politti is firmly typed as an ’80s band, which may be why few people have paid attention to anything Gartside’s done since 1988’s Provision, the mildly disappointing follow-up to the group’s international breakthrough, Cupid & Psyche 85. Casual fans of “Perfect Way,” Scritti’s only U.S. Top 40 hit, might expect to see Gartside and his latest crop of bandmates comebacking on a package tour with ABC, Spandau Ballet, and the Thompson Twins. The bleached-blond look, breathy high tenor, and obsessive production values all suggest that Gartside and his mid-’80s American collaborators, keyboardist David Gamson and percussionist Fred Maher, were New Romantics.
Actually, though, the ’80s band that Scritti ought to tour with—now that Gartside is playing live again after a 26-year bout of stage fright—is Gang of Four. Both groups were founded in Leeds, under the influence of a Marxian critique that had as much to do with art as politics. Both loved stateside black music, although Gang of Four stumbled badly when it made its slickly Americanized soulboy album, 1983’s Hard, while Scritti made a similar transition with grace and, incredibly, commercial credibility. Both also took closely parallel approaches to the problem of romance: Where Gang of Four proclaimed that “Love is like anthrax,” Gartside was wryly dialectical, putting quotation marks around the title character of “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” and explaining how “Jacques Derrida” had taught him “what I need to take apart my baby’s heart.”
On White Bread Black Beer, Gartside is as brilliant a critical-studies raconteur as ever, but not so clinical about the thing that most pop music is about. His songs no longer address the concept of love and the Girl—or “The Word Girl,” as another title put it—but testify to the true romance of Green and Alys Gartside, living with confusion and error and other everyday stuff. The man who used to sing about such archetypal couples as Cupid and Psyche and Heloise and Abelard (invoked on 1999’s Anomie & Bonhomie) hasn’t entirely taken to confessional songwriting. Yet the luminous “Snow in Sun”—an exquisite shimmer of bells and vocals set to a balmy reggae beat—is a sweetly apologetic, gently self-mocking wedding vow: “But you will never be without me/I’m beside you, never doubt me/There’ll be something good about me/Soon.”
The first album Scritti has recorded in London since 1982’s Songs to Remember, White Bread Black Beer takes the band in a sort of full circle. Part of the Camden squat scene in the early ’80s, Gartside now lives a few miles east in Hackney, where he’s traded cheap four-track studios for a potentially even cheaper home recording setup. If Scritti has made a roundtrip, however, the place to which it’s returned has been totally transformed. The punk-versus-pop divide has shattered into innumerable little fissures, the industry has become so rapacious that it’s almost irrelevant, and lowered expectations have freed all but multiplatinum musicians from genre straitjackets—not that most of them seem to have noticed. Also, the technology has gotten simpler, cheaper, and vastly more flexible. These days, you can make Pet Sounds at home in, say, Hackney.
Upon the new CD’s release, Gartside enlisted four guys from the neighborhood to play some gigs. After making three albums in a (discontinuous) row with top session players in New York and Los Angeles, that might seem a back-to-punk move, and it is. But White Bread Black Beer is not a back-to-punk project, despite having been made entirely by one guy in his home studio and featuring a hand-drawn cover designed in part by Mr. and Mrs. Gartside. The music is elaborately multitracked and immaculately detailed, showcasing some of the most complex vocal arrangements of Scritti’s career—call them the grown-up counterpart of Wilson’s “teenage symphony to God,” with a less anxious sort of in-my-room vibe. Where the group’s early work made a fetish of not sounding any better than three punks and a four-track should, the new album is a work of unfettered sonic illusionism. It says that pop music can be anything it wants.
That’s important to one of Gartside’s essential contemporary projects: reconciling the white bread of his background with the black beer that has long intoxicated him. Anomie & Bonhomie attempted to do the same thing, by nestling Gartside’s swooning vocals and post-grad allusions next to earthier verses rapped by the likes of Mos Def and Lee Majors. The synthesis was deft and thrilling, yet it didn’t win back many old listeners or grab many new ones. Perhaps Cupid & Psyche 85 fans had already decided that they hated hip-hop, while hip-hoppers dismissed Gartside as a bleached-blond pretender.
Paying tribute to hip-hop is no less crucial to Gartside these days, but on this album he does so in a way that can’t be mistaken for imitation. The most direct homage is the opening “The Boom Boom Bap,” which layers filmy vocals over a rhythm that skips eccentrically but definitely doesn’t rock the house. Since Gartside is singing about “the beat of my heart”—another of the album’s themes—the true subject of the song could be missed. Yet the final verse is simply a list of song titles from Run-D.M.C.’s debut album, followed by this pledge: “I love you still/I always will.”
Although the albums sound very different, Anomie & Bonhomie laid the foundation for White Bread Black Beer. For the 1999 set, Gartside decreed that there would be no keyboards—he cheated a bit by using guitar synth—and for all its electro bits, the new album also relies heavily on guitar. The Beach Boys’ influence was also present then, if less evident in that more swaggering context. In addition, some of the lyrical themes connect from one album to the next: In 1999, Gartside announced that “I’m cutting down on the stuff I’m thinking”; this time, he allows that “I tried having thoughts/But they don’t obey me.”
If the new album doesn’t name-drop such previous Gartside inspirations as Immanuel Kant and Jacques Lacan, it’s not all true love and domestic normality. The singer can still slip from romance to international capitalism in a few lines, and in “After Six” tweaks one of Western civ’s most powerful institutions: “Please, keep your love away from me/Jesus, keep your hands where I can see.” Such shifts in tone are fully supported by the music, which defies traditional verse-chorus form not with punk disorder but with supple grace. The songs range from the sketchy “No Fine Lines” to the near-epic “Dr. Abernathy,” a survey of intoxicants in three parts, with thumping passages nestled right next to wispy ones.
Since Gartside now questions thinking and endorses loving, White Bread Black Beer can be heard as a surrender to the very forces Scritti Politti opposed. But the punk wars are over, and martial metaphors are no longer in order. Besides, settling down isn’t always as soul-destroying as young punks fear. Gartside’s music still mixes dialectic and rapture, and if the proportions are different these days, the effect is no less glorious.CP