Monday, 21 April 2008

THE B-52s: Funplex

There remains something of a snobbery about elder pop statesmen/women; when Neil or Joni get to a certain age and offer imperious observations on this declining world, they are hailed, or at the very least nodded at. But when a group like the B-52s - who were always about now as tomorrow, or vice versa - reach that same stage most remain baffled. Weren't they supposed to self-destruct in 1981, or 1991, or whenever? Thus something like "Keep This Party Going," the defiantly celebratory throwdown which closes their new album Funplex wafts like a cloud over heads looking the other way when in fact it's a "Dancing In The Street" for the Obama age; ringmaster Fred Schneider - now silver of hair but undiminished of spirit, imagination or righteous mischief - calls out the entire world to "take this party to the White House lawn/Things are down in dirty in Washington."

It is to the B-52s' credit, of course, that the times have now found it in themselves to catch up with them; Funplex starts off sounding, of all logical things, like Stereolab; the smoothly sharp autorail pop of "Pump," the creamy electro-waddle of "Ultraviolet." Later the day will darken and there will be adventures in nocturnal ambience; even here, the very palpable worries of "Eyes Wide Open" ("so good it's bad") and the anxious vocals of the terrified "Dancing Now" blend securely into the Human League-esque flotations of "Love In The Year 3000" ("Robots-Bootybots-Erotobots," Fred says right) and the gorgeously popist sunsets of "Deviant Ingredient" ("Strip naked soul soup!" with several "Shang-A-Lang"s thrown in for optimal measure).

But the title track is also the lead single and the album's best and angriest song; the shopping mall as consumerist prison is hardly the most startling of tropes but both Kate and Cindy work hard to convey their breezily suffocating displeasure, and once again Fred is there calling out for shots ("I'm at the mall on a diet pill!"). It's a Shangri-Las break-up song, only it's not girl and boy who are breaking up but the world; Eden culminating or ending in the Taco Tiki Hut ("IS IT ALL ABOUT MONEY?!") where daytime waitresses stop even pretending to be corporately happy ("Here's your stupid 7-Up!") and the underbelly is casually revealed ("Private property - hippie be quiet!" yells Fred in an admirably succinct summation of the last forty years of Western human history, a few seconds before he rages at himself, "What the hell will I do with this stuff?").

The music is "Love Shack" shiny but this story isn't going to be one with a happy, collective ending ("No willpower and my wallet's on fire!"); still the message is confrontational, the urge for a riot scarcely suppressed. As the music intensifies to an explosive boil Fred howls "The world is going to hell!" as though the ship is already three-quarters sunk before concluding, bemusedly, "And what is that horrible smell?" The smell, readers, of studied indifference. The B-52s still want to party - but this time the options really are life or the other thing. Planet Chomsky - this way.