❉ If this is the end, the moment has been prepared for, writes Rob Fairclough.
I remember a 1977 NME review of The Stranglers’ first album Rattus Norvegicus sourly commenting that “It hadn’t been possible to offload this shit until now.” Fast forward nearly fifty years, and social media is alive with excitement over the band’s eighteenth LP Dark Matters. Tellingly, the music press of old is long gone, while The Stranglers are standing taller than ever, just like the weather-beaten Easter Island statues on the record’s cover.
For us grizzled meninblack followers, the arrival of Dark Matters feels like a joint achievement between ourselves and the band. We’ve all loved them for so long, through thick and thin and highs and lows, that it feels like we’ve helped will this genuine creative high into being. Via the band’s official Facebook page over the last few months, it’s been both heart-warming and thrilling to witness the track-by-track tease of Dark Matters’ imminent release.
I met bassist JJ Burnel and late keyboard player Dave Greenfield backstage at the University of East Anglia in 2019. Early versions of Dark Matters songs Water, This Song and The Last Men in the Moon had been in set that night. I told JJ how impressed I was with the new material, and he seemed genuinely interested in my opinion. That The Stranglers have always paid more attention over the years to what the fans think than the critics is, perhaps, part of the reason why they’ve survived so long.
In 2021 Dave is gone, taken by COVID-19, and this is the first album that the band’s founder, drummer Jet Black, hasn’t played on (although ‘new boy’ Jim Macaulay is an admirable inheritor of the sticks.) So, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that among the traditional Stranglers preoccupations – misanthropic reflections on relationships, impending apocalypse, outer space, aliens, etc. – they reveal an endearing emotional side for perhaps the first time.
An acoustic trilogy of songs begins with And If You Should See Dave…, a direct, bitter-sweet tribute by JJ to his fallen bandmate, which I guarantee the audience will deafen the band with by singing it back to them on the next tour. Three songs on is The Lines, a pared-down monologue from singer and guitarist Baz Warne, appropriately haunted by Dave’s Hammond organ, that equates life experience with “the lines on my face” – a beautifully simple idea and a delightfully evocative piece of music. Down, a similarly minimalist meditation on depression, is the only song I don’t like here. lt reminds me of the middle-aged whinge that was Coup De Grace, the 1998 album that is The Stranglers’ least-finest 42 minutes,
Dark Matters is about the same length, but it sounds twice as long (in a good way). Five of the eleven compositions are over four minutes long, giving full reign to the layered, complex arrangements and shifting time signatures that represent The Stranglers’ best work; Water, No Man’s Land and the majestic The Last Men on the Moon allude to, but don’t pastiche, high water marks like the albums Black and White (1978) and The Raven (1979). On Last Men…, you can almost see Dave’s invisible hands rippling across the keyboards. It certainly sounds like he was lost in the moment.
The central opus to what would have been side one is If Something’s Gonna Kill Me (It Might as Well Be Love). Two-songs-in-one, it agreeably hints at another LP in The Stranglers back catalogue, Aural Sculpture (1984), built around a poppy keyboard riff enhanced by a trumpet solo (the first brass on a Stranglers album since 1990’s 10). Elsewhere, the roll call of historical figures on Payday puts you in mind of the cast list of the 1977 single No More Heroes, while derailing expectations partway through a traditional Stranglers thrash by introducing two swing interludes. On recent single This Song the band are at their most aggressively undiluted, Baz Warne snarling through the dissolution of a love affair with a tongue-twisting, killer chorus:
“This song will get me over you
Lift me up and take me out of view
This song that says that she’ll hurt you once or twice
But she’ll never be with you the way you want her to
This song will get me over you…”
As we enter the final strait, The Stranglers have left the best until last. White Stallion – apparently about the fall of America and the rise of China, although the lyrics could be about anything globally ominous – sees them pushing forward sonically with a tune constructed from different movements, the like of which closed out the band’s albums in their early days. Based around an addictive electronic beat, a satanic choir and sampled vocals, White Stallion builds and builds; imagine a collision between the Prodigy, Primal Scream and the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want and you’re getting there. I’d lay odds that this’ll be the track that’ll close the main set on the final tour, and I bet it’ll bring the house down every time. It’s a masterpiece.
Dark Matters’ final track is Breathe and, on my first few hearings, I found it a bit inconsequential, wishing that White Stallion had been the last track and the album’s definitive statement. Repeated listens, however, reveal Breathe as a prowling, sinister, Pink Floydian soundscape, whose lyrics suggest the stalking of an attractive woman (a very old-school Stranglers idea). The defiant chorus “Fight to the end/Fight to the bitter end” seems to be addressing something else entirely, namely the continued, stoic, ‘f**k you’ existence of the band. If The Stranglers do disconnect their amps for the last time here – as the flatlining signal at the end of Breathe implies – after eighteen albums and nearly fifty years, it’d be a more than distinguished way to sign off.
And I’d swear those final synthesizer riffs have angels’ wings on.
❉ ‘Dark Matters’ was released on 10th September 2021 and is available to order through The Stranglers Official Store. Dark Matters is available on CD, 180gm black vinyl, limited red/black smoke coloured 180gm vinyl & even a limited cassette as well as 25 special signed white label vinyl test pressings. All pre-orders for the album from The Stranglers Official Store, on any format, will receive an exclusive CD entitled ‘Dave Greenfield – A Tribute’.
❉ Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on email@example.com, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk