The ads and the lurching, one-song performances herald the news: Blondie’s back. A million ex-punks sigh and fondle their skinny ties. A million girls who learned in junior high that you could be a cartoon and a musician, awkward and poised, and say anything that came into your pretty head, whatever its provenance, remember that it was Blondie who made the world safe for spy movies, giant ants, pink vinyl, French ditties that bounced like popcorn, double-entendres sung with wide-eyed bluntness. When youthful rebellion eschewed its traditional formsearnestness or apathyfor irony, Blondie amassed irony’s touchstones and processed them as artifacts of neutral value, components of the available pop lexicon. Unclouded by untoward attitude, Blondie’s true allegiance shone throughto music and all the fun things you can use to craft it.
Whatever its pose from song to song, collectively Blondie sneered at nothing, whereas the anti-conformity and ostentatious futurism of an outfit like Devo were a bore. Blondie was always more instinctual than intellectual; the band reacted to references and pop ephemera not as a stance but as enthusiasm. It appropriated the music of others not to sound the dissonant peal of something genuine being drained of meaning, but rather because existing forms were the fastest way to convey meaningnothing is so heartfelt as deadpan Blondie impersonating a love song.
The amorphous good will that Blondie has enjoyed since it broke upnot a minute before; New York punk snobbery is a formidable thingfuels the enthusiasm behind its new release. Good will is a pleasant thing, but when applied to aesthetics, it’s awfully stretchy. In the case of No Exit, it expands to take in the terrible music, Deborah Harry’s poor, unresonant vocals, and the general listlessness inherent in the album’s execution. It sounds nothing like a Blondie record, not even Eat to the Beat, which is much better than its reputation; No Exit sounds like a Debbie Harry record…from the ’80s. It’s hardly the abysmal eyewash that Blondie’s The Hunter is, but it’s not Harry’s Def, Dumb & Blonde, either.
For No Exit to succeed theoretically, it ought to pay at least stylistic credit to the band’s soundshiny, sinewy pop-rock with Lower East Side rough edges and occasional arena aspirationswithout consciously setting out to be a compendium of new oldies. Harry’s peculiarly wonderful voice, with its thick-throated passages and distinctively charming lack of elasticity, should be approximately in place. That No Exit is a musical washout on which Debbie Harry sounds less like Debbie Harry than Natalie Merchant did covering “Because the Night” and it has still raked in raves is evidence that its empirical success depends on what the listener wants out of its Blondie.
If the band exists as a sentimentally regarded novelty act of one’s youth, then No Exit is the perfect artifact. In 14 songs, it hits its marks like an aging hoofer on her final tour, giving up lots of New Wave-derived melodiousness in between the speedy near-reggae (“Screaming Skin”), fake sleepy C&W (“The Dream’s Lost on Me”), and slick tunes ready to be played behind spy movie creditstake your pick of pop-style (“Nothing Is Real but the Girl”), or hard-boiled lounge (“Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room”). The knock-kneed-white-girl ghetto funk of “Happy Dog (For Caggy)” and big, dumb, faux-African beats of “Dig Up the Conjo” prove that Blondie’s affection for black musical forms is just as enthusiastic but markedly less excusable than it was when “Rapture” was releasedand “Rapture” was a joke, whereas these two duds are trying to be funny.
Stylistically, No Exit’s versatility makes reference not to ambient strains of current culture but to the band’s own past taste for those strainsBlondie out of the context of its history has little to say. Even its vampire song (that’s the title number, believe it or not) is a wan playground ghost story told with all the conviction of a tired camp counselor. Coolio chimes in for a much-needed breath of graveyard stenchat least he sounds like he believes in the thing.
If listless execution, weak musical choices, and a cynical attitude toward one’s own classic-rock status make for a “bad” recording, that is all to the good of No Exit, assuming its target market is 35-plus and has a tear in its eye. After all, its poor musical quality only reinforces what the aging boomer generation and the ensuing posties would like to believe about their youth: that their artifacts were superior to anything that came after, and an approximation of their sound, even without resonances, is proof enough.
Whether No Exit is an expression of Blondie’s cynicism is hard to saythe band’s greatness is irrefutable, and even here it makes an infrequent, dazzling show. Forget the first single, “Maria,” whose relentless chugging rhythm and head-bopping beat argue for the kind of cynicism discomfiting in a politician; not only is it genuine New Wave the way Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was genuine rockabilly, but it throws a sweaty scarf to the fans with lines like “Your heart beats like a subway train.” (Subways! That’s so New York in the ’70s.) “Double Take” reminds the world of Harry’s propensity for burning her torch songs to the ground, its molten chorus as good as that of “Union City Blues,” or even “Shayla.” “Divine” also shivers and sighs, and “Under the Gun (For Jeffery Lee Pierce)” has the dumb-bunny guitar playing the melody line and a haunting use of military-style drumming. But Harry’s voice is ragged and weak, and the band pulls these moments out only sporadically.
Many of the songs sound good”Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room” is cute and doesn’t offend; “Dig Up the Conjo” is cute and does offend; “No Exit” has got a thing going even if it is a fake thing. But the value of their contribution to the musical landscape is dead zerothere’s enough fabulous and pretty great mediocre Blondie out there to hold us until the millennium, and even then the point of “Screaming Skin” will be lost on me. It is unfair to expect this band in these times to mess with your head and heart as thoroughly, as playfully, as Plastic Letters did 20 years ago. But for an outfit known chiefly for the pleasure it takes in pop indulgence to produce an album as indifferent to every charm of music, including the ones it inventedthat’s just so sad.CP