I'm reading all the signs and I'm learning how to bring them back
The Gospel According to the Meninblack (1981) ***1/2
The Stranglers were riding high in 1979, with a string of hit singles and four successful albums; successful enough to indulge in the rock star vanities of concurrent solo albums - both Jean-Jacques Burnel and Hugh Cornwell released side projects that year, neither of which are particularly worth the bother hearing even for hardcore nooseplay fetishists (which won't stop me from getting around to reviewing them dutifully, eventually). After entering the charts with a #1 album (no matter how much payola Stewart Copeland's CIA-connected patriarch paid, the truth shall out!) the only predictable direction was down. Well, they could have continued to soar by conquering America, but like the Jam the Euromen did not want to cometh back to the shores of Yankistan after a few tepid toe-dipping dates across the pond. In another act of synchronicity with the Police, the Stranglers had instead planned a 1980 world tour touching on then-remote backwaters such as India and North Africa that had never seen major rock acts before; however, events that year would make that dream impossible. Cornwell was busted for drug possession and spent four months as a guest of Her Majesty, thus temporarily derailing the Stranglers' career at a critical juncture. The Stranglers' fortunes would have plummetted in any likely event, however, given the deeply uncommercial nature of their followup to The Raven.
A bit of time in the stir gives a man a chance to catch up on his reading, and Cornwell's dipping into the Holy Book no doubt influenced the conceptual direction, in which the Stranglers follow the Jethro Tull route and deliver a muddled critique of organized religion. Or something. As with most rock concept albums, the idea is more than a bit vague and not seemingly thought through very well: a space alien ventures to Earth, is mistaken for the Messiah, and accidentally creates a new religion; the space alien may or may not have been the historical Jesus - who knows? The album is full of sci-fi and Biblical references, as well as quite a bit of long instrumental passages - it's full-out prog rock, modernized psychedelia, without a trace of punk in sight. It's completely lacking in the aggression and sleaze that made the Stranglers' infamy; alas, it is also lacking in the accessible pop tunecraft that made the Stranglers' bank accounts. "Two Sunspots," and "Thrown Away," are excellent pop singles, and that's that - the album tanked on the charts, selling less than 50,000 copies and jeopardizing the band's record contract.
It is, however, the best-sounding Stranglers album; the band obviously expended a lot of time and effort in the studio, creating an appealing density of sound with skillful playing and production effects. It is not, by either modern standards or even the standards of 1981, a techno album; by the early '80s there were already too many new romantic and post-punk synthesizer bands like the Human League already dabbling in synth-pop for the Stranglers to offer anything truly revolutionary. It was, though, cutting edge, and still sounds quite modernistic today, considerably less dated than any of the other Stranglers' albums. "Waltzinblack," still sounds creepy after all these years, an instrumental of carnival music from hell. Clowns - who doesn't find'em creepy? The dank, medieval "Hallow to Our Men," which closes the album, is my favorite track, with its beautifully haunting synth melody. I almost wish I could rate this a bit higher, but despite the richness of sound, that can't cover up the relative paucity of some of the songwriting. Studio trickery can't disguise the lack of memorable hooks in the likes of "Four Horsemen," or "Just Like Nothing on Earth," (which was, astonishingly, the first single - no wonder this album bombed commercially!). All in all, Meninblack is an interesting and admirable experiment, but not a wholly successful one.
Curiously, the bonus tracks do not include the concurrent single, "Who Wants the World?" which lyrically and conceptually was directly tied to the project. You do get "Top Secret," which bears a superficial similarity to "Bear Cage," and is likewise listenably average; the lyrics are about Nostradamus. Real chart topping stuff! The album's photonegative single, "Maninwhite," is about the then-new Pope John Paul, complete with sampling of one of his speeches in Polish. Why such danceable fare of great appeal to hickey-necked teens never made the charts, I for one shall never figure out. "Tomorrow Was Hereafter," is a leftover from their pre-1977 days with awful hectoring vocals courtesy Burnel and an awesome psychedelic instrumental freak-out towards the end. Fits in musically, if not so much lyrically, with the concept.