Gang of Four

Return the Gift

(V2; 2005)

By Conrad Amenta | 21 February 2008

During the recent reunion of Gang of Four’s original lineup, Jon King paid respect to the shadow of his former self by keeping time on a television with a baseball bat. It’s unclear whether this was intended as a shout-out to those in the crowd who had witnessed the act at the zenith of its meaningfulness or as a signal to their newfound fan base that it was time to “pay attention!”. But it’s this image, no longer (and probably never really) singular, that best analogizes Return the Gift. As they unintentionally pointed out on tour, the band isn’t burnishing their history. They, like everyone else, are revisiting it with exactly the kind of broad-stroked gestures that make this collection muddled and problematic. Assembled as such, this is yer dad’s post-punk.

While we can all give big ups to the concept of this record (the band enters the studio to re-record their best songs as opposed to, say, releasing a timely collection), reviewers are essentially given the impossible choice between deferring to what is seen as the band’s unassailable credibility or recognizing the obvious redundancy of the album and calling it a belly flop. But I admit that even a band with a relatively tiny lifespan has to contend with inconsistencies in studio sound on their cash cow Best Ofs (think Nirvana), and the idea of Return, in providing a collection that is both complete and updated in sound and scope, has merit. The inclusion of an American one-dollar bill in the first printing of this album is also a nice, symbolic touch, given the pure numbers of current acts name-dropping the band as an influence. But the kinds of people who would dig the album’s premise probably already own Entertainment!, so the question becomes, where does this leave the band and their pay-it-forward principles?

When Radiohead’s unmixed Hail to the Thief leaked, I, about as successfully as a smoker on day two of quitting, tried to restrain myself from downloading it until its official, finalized release. The resulting dilemma was that when I got around to buying the album I couldn’t appreciate the final product. I was so sold on the tone and character of what I had already heard that, to my mind, it was vastly superior to anything that would come later, even if the latter product is a more accurate reflection of the band’s intentions. This same dilemma ball-and-chains Return. Though, technically, the production is much “improved” here, meaning that the album is louder and clearer, it’s still not a very enjoyable listen when the listener can’t shake the idea that something’s amiss. One may be used to defending Gang of Four’s work from copycat bands and detractors, but how do you defend the work from the band themselves?

In places on Return, Gang of Four (and particularly guitarist Andy Gill) sound enamored with the idea of upping the ante on already listenable work, and the results often border on a Guitar Centre employee shredding on his lunch break. There’s a moment during “To Hell with Poverty” where Gill’s guitar scales a skyscraper of distortion, but the first reaction is not, “Oh, I remember this part,” or “Wow, that sounds so much more intense now,” but that this kind of showboating simply means something different today, when an excess of excess has made this kind of hyperbole simplistic. The drums, (which were the aspect of their music once most maligned and, some suggest, the catalyst for this album) are here brought to the fore and given dimensions that were, admittedly, lacking on the original recordings. But if time has proven anything it’s that, when it comes to revered work, trivialities like snare tone become beside the point (and, when improved, certainly don’t make listening to “Paralysed” a more essential experience). One of the many reasons that Entertainment!, Solid Gold and Songs for the Free became post-punk classics is how they sound, which the contrast of gravel and precision, epitomized by (among other things) the low-end drums, has become fundamental to.

There’s also an interesting irony to the notion that crops of post-punk revivalists go out of their way to mimic the sound of GO4 classics while the original band update it out of dissatisfaction with its supposed inferiority. It’s incredible how much Bloc Party’s “Banquet” really does sound like “Damaged Goods,” complete with stereo-channel-switching guitars, call-and-response talk-sing and – wait for it – low end drums. Between the old guard and the up-and-comers, who is being left behind is unclear. Instead of the updated drums, perhaps the line, “History is the reason / I’m washed up,” and the kinds of speculation it invites, is what makes this brand of music tourism an update worth consideration. Meanwhile, “At Home He’s a Tourist” asks, “Why make yourself so anxious / You’ll give yourself an ulcer,” and “Natural’s Not In It” mentions what gives King a migraine (still pronounced “meegrain”). These may seem cherry-picked here for their peripheral importance, but they actually stand out. Yes, the drums are now bracing, but the band also sounds old, grating, irrelevant and so not at all like Gang of Four.

It bears asking if there’s any hope this album will cut a swath through the fluorescent air of big-box retail clusterfucks, a legitimizing voice for still-disillusioned Rage fans and Protest the Hero. Some have even suggested the political urgency of GO4's lyrics, presumably collected here for their resonance, timeliness and/or refreshing acerbity, will dissolve the fog of a certain Southern somebody’s divisive politicking. To this assumption, I can only consider the response of one of my friends who, having never heard Gang of Four, actually laughed when "To Hell with Poverty" played in his car. "Yeah!" he said, "Send that abstract concept of wealth distribution to hell!"

Maybe my friend is a cock, but going wide-lens reveals there’s something to be learned about trying to buddy political music with today’s youth movements. When swagger and fuck-yourself attitude is used to sell ring tones and car insurance to a generation more politically savvy (and perhaps cynical) than their parents, polemics and distortion will never do the trick. The band’s lyrics, when combined with Return’s overreaching rubric of turning everything to eleven, don’t reveal any kind of halcyon logic we can use to better understand why politics works as it does. Instead, the words become a document of what’s best understood now as ineffectual posturing.

Returning to the image of King smashing the television, against whom could that act be rebelling today? The kid in the crowd with the iPod in his pocket that holds 10,000 songs isn’t (or shouldn’t be) as afraid of technology or mass-entertainment. The us-and-them mentality of anti-corporatism and The Man demonizing is complicated by the image of the Google boys tossing Nerf footballs on the lawn of their new multi-million dollar facilities and their “Don’t be evil” slogan. It’s not that the object of Gang of Four’s protest is more gray area than it was before, but that, for their fans, it’ll always be easier to protest something retrospectively and without the benefit of actually being there, hence the continued relevance of the band’s catalogue (Mall obviously excepted). Throwing Return the Gift into the mix exposes Gang of Four’s agitprop politics to the harshest light – that of the hope that the band can still incite fervor and inspiration in the presence of actual political event. Unfortunately, as this album points out, there’s nothing new to be heard here. Just echoes.