A person I haven't quite met has made a record I haven't quite heard. The person is Green Gartside, and the record is the new Scritti Politti album White Bread, Black Beer
. When I was in London six weeks ago somebody gave me some quite detailed instructions on how to bump into Green, but I didn't follow them. Partly because I'd heard that Green might turn around and, without a word, walk away when I was talking to him. That's no good! I might as well talk to a picture! At least it wouldn't walk away!
So, well, if I were talking to a picture of Green, what would I say? First, I'd apologize for not having bought his new album. The picture would say nothing, so I'd continue. I'd ask how the new record fits into the Scritti Politti narrative. I have, after all, heard key tracks, session readings of the new songs on Scritti fansite Bibbly-O-Tek
(what a wonderful name!). So I wonder how the Scritti keywords are playing out:
NARCISSISM / SICKNESS / SWEETNESS / EQUALITY
I don't just mean how they're playing out in the lyrics. Music and lyrics and production all hold each other in place in a subtle dynamic. For instance, there's always been a "mirrors and coke" element to Green's work ("I am my own ideal") which he's always offset by mentions of sickness, on the one hand, and political engagement on the other. So does this offsetting still work? Does he "still support the revolution"? Or has that part of the Scritti equation narrowed down to a vague nostalgia for Robin Hood? And if so, is the sweetness / narcissism / sickness part still bearable? Didn't it need to be held in counterbalance with something?
I'm able to ask these quite hard-hitting questions because the picture of Green hasn't talked back, but also hasn't walked away. But it does make them sort of rhetorical questions, like asking the meaning of the word "girl" and not getting any answer except some synthy reggae-chords.
Green's voice hasn't changed at all; what has changed is the way its sweetness was counterbalanced, before, by hardness. The hardness of Mos Def's rapping, on his last record Anomie and Bonhomie
, or the hardness of Arif Mardin's Fairlight hits back in the 80s. Sweetness, when it isn't held in place by hardness texturally, gets "cloying". Is your new record cloying, Green?
There's no way the man in the picture hasn't thought about these issues. Any artist has to. And it would be interesting if, for instance, this album won the Mercury Prize
, to see whether a decision on Green's part to let a sort of fragmented consumerist narcissism triumph, untempered by the equality and hardness parts he incorporated before, actually got massively endorsed by a fragmented, consumerist-narcissist Britain.
I see others have been talking to pictures of Green too. Simon Reynolds quotes
Barney Hoskyns quoting Green in an NME interview back in 1981: "And as regards, say, the "sweetness" of 'The "Sweetest Girl"'... well, I think there is a dirt, a criminality if you like, in sweetness itself".
BOOM! There it is. A beautiful answer to some of my questions. "You don't need to counterbalance sweetness with hardness or dirt, or in fact anything else at all," the picture tells me (without moving its lips), "because sweetness is already taboo
You're already being deeply subversive by being sweet, friendly, fey or light. Isn't this close to my ideas for a "friendly album"
? My ideas about why Japan is such a joyful society to move through? That gentleness, friendliness and social harmony are the ultimate taboos, the ultimate liberations?
Or is it, in fact, closer to the corrosive idea of "guilty pleasures
"? Is Green in fact saying we should embrace sugary chart pop and slurp it up uncritically, unresistingly, building up a guilt which only makes the pleasures more pleasant? And if so, doesn't this simply re-inscribe puritanism, rather than offering us a way out of it?
The picture of Green says nothing, which is bad. But doesn't walk away either, which is good.