Brother, you better watch out for the skin deep
Aural Sculpture (1984) **1/2
Feline and La Folie may have softened the band's sound but at least the music was identifiable as the Stranglers; this is verging on generic mainstream '80s pop, still with the tinny fake drums (sod off, Jet Black, you lazy old fucker), cheesy Casio keyboards, but now with a horn section and black female backing vocalists to add to the shittiness! Sometimes you wish musicians would stay on the drugs if they're going to morph into bland yuppies when they come off the high. The album still recieves a fair grade because the Stranglers were always first and foremost a pop band - never more than play-acting at being punks, and their psychedelic-prog experiments were just that, experiments - and thus there are a handful of good '80s pop songs scattered here and there. But the Stranglers, as we love or loathe them, are no more. As expected, this considerably more commercial direction restored the Meninblack to the pop charts, which is why the term "sellout" was invented.
Oh sure, it's not all that bad. "Skin Deep," is a creamily melodic warning against fake friends that's as memorable as any of their singles. "No Mercy," fits in the funky horn section and soul choir better than you'd expect, and even boasts some appetizingly rough growling from Hugh on the vocals, though this is the last type of thing you'd normally expect from the band. "Uptown," is a fine toe-tapper about cocaine using racehorses as a metaphor, with a catchy little acoustic riff driving the proceedings. "Laughing," an ode to the recently deceased Marvin Gaye, at least sports some jiltingly odd lyrics to counteract its soporific soft rock ballad backing ("but lead poisoning from your daddy to me just didn't seem fair"). "Souls," is pretty if featherweight mildly psychedelic soft-rock. The rest of the album doesn't reward relistening, with Burnel's pompous and horribly sung (I wish he'd just stick to shouting as in the days of yore) attempted epic geopolitical statement "North Winds," the nadir. Or is that the brassily headache-inducing "Punch and Judy"? The tuneless, clattering closer, "Mad Hatter"? Hugh's travelogue of "Spain," of which the only interesting fact of note is that it has one of Franco's descendants reading a radio message in Spanish over the mid-section? There are enough decent tunes to salvage this from being a total waste, but this is the jumping the shark moment for the band, and all but true fanatics can safely jump ship. Unless you happen to enjoy dated mainstream '80s pop, then by all means partake. However, if you are that kind of music consumer, I'm scratching my head at you'll see of merit in the early Stranglers. So those two groups, Stranglers fans and fans of this album - this, I do not see much overlap.
The quite generous eight bonus tracks are, with the exception of the two instrumental remixes, are generally of somewhat higher quality than most of the album proper, and thus quite the bargain. The mainstream '80s sound is still firmly in place, but the likes of "Head on the Line," "Here and There," and "In One Door," aren't that bad as far as '80s synth-pop goes. The real treats are saved for last: two more installments of the Vladimir saga, "Vladimir and the Beast," and "Vladimir Goes to Cuba". This pair of parodies of Eastern Bloc Soviet-era mentality are hilariously wonderful enough all by themselves to warrant a full star upgrade of this album's rating. But....nah. To do so would be disengenously counter-revolutionary to the ideals of our blessed Workers' Paradise.