“Are you smiling? Are you frowning?”, sings Pete Shelley on “Keep on Believing”, one of the best tracks on Buzzcocks’ otherwise tepid ninth album The Way. It’s a set of questions the band has been asking their listeners—and themselves—for 38 years. Following the departure of lead singer Howard Devoto soon after the release of their 1977 debut EP, Spiral Scratch, guitarists Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle took over as co-frontmen; from there, Buzzcocks perfected pop-punk before it even existed as such, infusing blurred, breakneck punk anthems with doomed romanticism, anti-macho tenderness, and a flair for nerdy screeds about technology and morality. At the heart of those Buzzcocks classics, though, was the nervy balance between happy and sad. Smiling and frowning weren’t an either/or, but layers of a single gloriously conflicted expression. Which only makes The Way feel even flimsier by comparison.
Buzzcocks’ most recent album was 2006’s solid Flat-Pack Philosophy, but those intervening eight years don’t mean much in Buzzcocks-time. Shelley, Diggle, and their shifting rhythm section (now comprising Chris Remington and Danny Farrante) have taken long breaks before, starting with the band’s original dissolution in 1981. If anything, The Way is a chance to flaunt the fruits of their latest rejuvenation. That chance is only barely taken. The album alternates neatly between Shelley- and Diggle-sung tracks, and Shelley’s songs mostly hover in the mediocre range. “Keep on Believing” squanders a grabby opening and some vicious velocity by failing to summon a deep enough hook, which Buzzcocks songs live and die by. In fact, the majority of Shelley’s contributions to The Way seem to forget that speed, distortion, and melody don’t mean anything unless they sync up into something that sticks in the ear; “The Way” and “Out of the Blue” also come on strong then quickly evaporate, while “It’s Not You” and “Virtually Real” come closest to grasping, if weakly, what Buzzcocks once uncontestedly owned. When “Virtually Real” tries to take on the dehumanization of social media, it almost works—the disconnect between true love and false fronts is, after all, Buzzcocks’ wheelhouse—until Shelley’s rant against trolls becomes what it hates.
Diggle has always been more erratic a songwriter than Shelley, and that hasn’t changed on The Way. His voice is gluey and growly when matched against Shelley’s boyish, heartbroken coo, but Diggle’s compositions define both the highest and lowest points of the album. On the overwhelmingly positive side is “Chasing Rainbows/Modern Times”, which is not only the best song on The Way, but the only song here worthy of being canonized into the group’s stable of classics. After a verse that puts a deft twist on the most basic pop-punk riff of all time, that of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”, Diggle’s indelible yelp carries the song through with nasal, nonsensical catchiness. “In the Back” is almost as good, but Diggle mars it with limp strings of clichés (“Everything’s not what it seems/ And what you give is what you get”); the turgid “People Are Strange Machines” doesn’t get any cleverer than its Doors-referencing title. His voice almost disintegrates on “Third Dimension”, an embarrassing pastiche of 21st-century frat-garage stomp, but it’s miles better than the five plodding, go-nowhere minutes of the self-serious “Saving Yourself”.
At their best, Buzzcocks can turn punk rock into a paean to bubblegum, bad love poems, and the Beatles. That bipolar exhilaration is evident on The Way, but it doesn’t snag as well as it could. Instead of jittery counterpoint, there’s a lax wobbliness to these songs, and that lack of interplay—both vocally and guitar-wise—is the album’s most glaring omission. Energy isn’t the problem; they just don’t know what to do with it. Every song here wants to be an anthem, and a couple almost hit the mark, but the majority are barely worthy of jingle-hood. The Way is the converse of what Buzzcocks fans might have come to expect from the band at this point in the game: Instead of growing soft and slick while retaining their songwriting prowess, they’ve stayed fast and raw—but left much of their popcraft somewhere behind.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/11IXl3i