To distant lands / Takes both my hands / Never a frown with golden brown
La Folie (1981) ***
After the debacle of Meninblack, the Stranglers set out to reverse the course of their fortunes and deliver a self-consciously commercial album. With the exception of the title track, all of the songs are three to four minute pop songs, and it worked, setting the Stranglers back on top of the pop charts with their biggest smash single ever. Yes, this is the one with "Golden Brown," on it, the only waltz to ever occupy the #2 position on the U.K. charts. Reputedly about heroin, it's a beguiling harpsichord-drenched, vaguely Near Eastern gem of burnt-amber beauty, and deservedly their signature tune: the Stranglers managed the feat many pop groups aim for, penning a standard, even if it's a million miles from the heady days of punk. The rest of the album sounds nothing like it, of course - what did you expect, an entire album of genteel soft-rock waltzes? Nah, it's mostly standard New Wave pop, heavy on the synthesizers but not quite synth-pop yet (too many snaky guitar lines intruding into the hooks). And then the Stranglers shot themselves in the feet again by releasing as the followup single to their biggest hit, "La Folie," a retelling of a Japanese short story about a man who erotically devours his lover. It's six minutes. It's about cannibalism. It's sung entirely in French. It was, needless to add, not a hit single.
"Tramp," as Hugh grouses in his Song by Song book, should have been the followup single, as it possesses a compellingly melodic tune and catchily dour/uplifting chorus, telling its relatable tale of a lonely homeless man in search of love in the call of the wild. Like Meninblack, it's a concept album, but a much more commercially minded concept: in French, the title means "the folly," which refers to the greatest folly of all - love. Not that the album limits its scope to merely romantic love, as "Let Me Introduce You To The Family," makes clear (the Stranglers as the Sopranos). The strikingly scathing lyrics of "Everybody Loves You When You're Dead," may or may not have been inspired by the recent death of John Lennon; it works as a catch-all sentiment for many celebrity deaths. "Non Stop," is the most lyrically intriguing, as Hugh imagines what it must be like to be a nun committed to only one man in her life, but she doesn't worry because as he slyly hints, "she's got the best lover / better than any other," which compensates for her celibacy. "Pin Up," revisits old sexist haunts from a more mature, humorous perspective, as submarine sailors stare at mermaids pinned to the walls; "It Only Takes Two To Tango," isn't a love song at all, it's the lone political statement, about U.S.-Soviet nuclear WWIII relations. "Ain't Nothin' To It," also veers from the program, as the lyrics are adopted from the autobiography of jazz legend Milton Mezzrow; unfortunately, Cornwell's attempt at old-school rap works about as well as you'd expect from an Englishman born in 1949. But it's not as embarassing as JJ Burnel's self-delusion in "The Man They Love to Hate," in which he declares, apparently with a straight face, that "all the girls have fallen for the man they love to hate." The pain and suffering a man must bear when every woman is in love with him. My heart bleeds.
If I haven't discussed much of the music yet, well, that's because I don't find much of the music all that interesting. Disciplining themselves to the art and craft of simple pop songs, the songwriting's up since the last album, but the performances are muted and rather dull, as if the energetic life has been sucked out of the band: they're going through the motions. By no means a bad album, it's simply not that compelling: it's standard New Wave pop, nothing more, nothing less. It's more thinly produced than Meninblack and more dated-sounding in parts; some of the songs work fine, and some don't work very well at all - it's a collection of songs. Thus the band live or die by the strength of their material on this album, eschewing any lengthy soloing or ferocious intensity or production gimmickry. A surefire recipe for boredom unless you've got some really good songs, which the Stranglers only manage about 50% of the time on this longplayer.
There are six bonus tracks on the reissue, which seems quite generous until you actually hear them. "Cocktail Nubiles," is a seven-minute goof; as billed, it's "Bring on the Nubiles," performed lounge style, with many false starts and studio chatter. Unless you're fascinated with the voice of Hugh screwing around in the studio and cracking bad jokes, eminently skippable after one listen. "You Hold the Key to My Love in Your Hands," is an obvious sexual reference; the title is more clever than the rest of this musical throwaway. "Love 30," is an instrumental hangover from the psychedelic period; it sounds like some other song played backwards, but probably isn't. "Cruel Garden," allows Hugh to show off his Spanish guitar technique; it's OK but no great shakes. "Vietnamerica," is another pun, but far more substantial musically and lyrically; it was meant to be a single to break them in America, but got lost in the shuffle, I believe. Pity, as it's a nice little tune. That leaves the best for last, "Strange Little Girl," which was a major hit, and deservedly so, as it's one of the Stranglers' loveliest tunes. Co-written in 1974 with their original guitarist, Hans Wärmling, who shot back off to his native Sweden before the band fully gelled, like "Golden Brown," it's a haunting soft-rock tune; it concerns the travails of an innocent country girl who runs off to the big, dangerous city. Tori Amos covered it, but don't let that hold you against the song.