In an early Ian McEwan short story, a novelist struggles with the follow-up to her acclaimed best seller. The tale has a grotesque psychological twist when the writer's lover discovers that the manuscript the writer has been working on is actually a painstakingly composed, word-for-word repeat of the debut. This isn't precisely what post-punk legend Gang of Four has done on Return the Gift, the first release by the group's original lineup since 1981, but it's not far off. Instead of recording an album of new material like most reformed bands do, they've rerecorded 14 Gang of Four classics cherry-picked from albums such as Entertainment!, Solid Gold, and Songs of the Free.
It's hard to think of a precedent in rock history for Return—essentially, a band recording its own tribute album. The decision has bemused many Gang of Four fans, who wonder why the band didn't just put out a compilation of the definitive versions. Some see Return as proof that the group's reformation was purely opportunistic, an attempt to reap the rewards of post-punk's ultrahip status these last couple of years. The renaissance has involved a swarm of new bands—from the Rapture and Radio Four to Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand—drawing heavily on the Gang's jagged and minimalist punk-funk. Surely, the argument goes, if the group really felt it had a relevant contribution to make beyond being a nostalgia act, it would write an album of new material.
But there are other ways of looking at Return the Gift. The title itself hints that the whole project might be an oblique commentary on retro culture's "eternal returns." That kind of meta-rock gesture was always Gang of Four's signature. When the band formed in 1977, singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill were enrolled in the University of Leeds' fine art department, then a hotbed of conceptualism and leftist critiques of institutionalized art. Absorbing this sensibility and bolstering it with extracurricular immersion in Marxist theorists like Gramsci, Gang of Four approached every aspect of their "intervention" in pop culture—songwriting, album packaging, interviews, internal band relations—in the spirit of demystification.
...For this die-hard fan, Return is a curious listening experience, with something of the eeriness of that Ian McEwan story about the blocked writer. You can't help wondering what it must have felt like for the band members, laboring away at remaking songs they'd laid down definitively long ago. On the new version of "Love Like Anthrax," Gill adds some self-reflexive lines about the project to his original spoken-word critique of pop's fixation on love songs. He describes Return as an "an exercise in archaeology," an attempt to find out where their heads were at in those heady post-punk days. When quizzed about the project, both King and Allen refer to the original recordings as "Dead Sea Scrolls" that they could call upon when memory failed. Aged 7, I wanted to be an archaeologist because I thought it was all about stumbling on Mayan temples in the jungle. Then I lost interest when I went to a dig and saw how tedious sifting for pottery shards actually was. Return isn't dreary (it could hardly be, given that the songs are among the most dynamic and structurally inventive rock songs of the last 30 years), but it never quite ignites because of the contradictions that brought the record into existence. These new versions seem to exist neither in 1979 nor 2005, but in a peculiar limbo of nontime, the undefined space of "retro" itself.
I guess so. But I just think it is just a way to make some money in a way that makes them feel a little less icky than putting out a Greatest Hits record and also doesn't challenge them to top their old stuff as much as if they made something completely new. And that's fine, of course, but it's not as interesting as the writer pretends it is. He's just making excuses for a band he really loves, which is something the Advanced Theory Blog frowns on.