The northern seas are cold but they're our own
The Raven (1979) ****
The Stranglers were a major rock band by 1979 and could no longer credibly pass themselves off as street punks, and thus comes a shift in direction. This album actually topped the U.K. charts during its first few weeks of release, but was kept off the #1 spot due to a clerical error that ascribed that honor to another fresh new quasi-punk band hawking their concurrent LP, Regatta de Blanc. An enterprising rock scribe could pen an alternate history novel where the Stranglers became global superstars instead of Sting, Summers, and Copeland, but truth is that the Police were just beginning and the Stranglers were already in decline. A slight decline, of course, as one can ascertain from the positive grade given above, but the beginning of the end nevertheless; the Stranglers would never quite recover the glory of those first three LPs. The differences are not slight; The Raven is a considerably more polished and glossily produced affair than previous offerings, that almost completely abandons punk aggression for a more expansive, state-of-the-art mainstream rock sound. Not that this is a pop sellout by any means; only one song, the hit single, "Duchess" involves traditional boy-meets-princess pop subject matter at all. It's just that the Stranglers' ambitions have evolved beyond street-level punk at this point, and now that they are one of the premiere rock bands in Britain, it's time for some sort of Big Statement. Thus, this album and the next (The Gospel According to the Meninblack) emphasize their progressive and arena rock elements, to the expense of their punk and pop sides.
I'll be honest, my first impression upon hearing this after the first three was to write this off as slick and lifeless, cold and full of dated New Wave synthesizer rock. Adjust yourself to the icy blast of the new wave, because the gritty punk rock is never coming back. The Stranglers play up the icily detached element of New Wave as opposed to the bouncy post-disco fun aspect; like Black and White, the tone is grimly serious - I don't think they crack a single joke, not one, not once, nada. A title like "Baroque Bordello," promises the good ol' sleaze of yore, but when you actually listen to the track, it turns out to be.....well, the opposite of evocative of lustful feelings, at least musically speaking; the band gets the baroque part right, creating an elegantly decadent air, but it's the mummified elegance of an aristocrats' court in well-perfumed decay, and the lyrics are sung from a detached observer's perspective. "Ice," is even....well, icier, and sounds like Kraftwerk fencing with Genesis. Even the putative love song, "Duchess," which dizzily swirls by on a wave of hyperkinetic keyboards for exquisite power-pop, is oddly dispassionate from an emotional perspective. Well, Hugh did break up with her not long after, anyway.
The panoramic title track stands as one of the band's mightiest songs, as they aim for the epic sweeping feel of a Viking longship sailing icy seas, led by the black feathered companions, and succeed; the opening track, the brief instrumental "Longships," introduces the Teutonic imagery. But it's another set of themes that make more of a lasting impression: this is the Stranglers' big political statement, as they turn their eyes from the dank alleyways of inner city London to geopolitics on a global scale. Thus the self-descriptive "Dead Loss Angeles," joins the lengthy list of rock and pop songs scathingly putting down the southern California lifestyle. Musically it's an interesting and successful experiment in that it has no guitar, but instead Cornwell doubling up on bass with Burnel. And it is noticable that it's a guitarist plunking away at a bass, the way that Hugh plays his lines. "Nuclear Device," is a character assassination of the power-mad governor who almost turned Queensland, Australia into an authoritarian nightmare back in the '70s. Given the subject matter, it seemed an odd choice for followup single to "Duchess," but there wasn't much competition, was there? So much for the sell-out charges. "Shah Shah a Go Go," deals with the then-current Iranian Revolution; in keeping with the rest of the album's air of detachment, the Stranglers refuse to offer opinion, but merely observe headlines.
Sadly, by this point, hard drugs had entered the band's world, with both Burnel and Cornwell dabbling in heroin. "Don't Bring Harry," is a hauntingly effective self-warning from Burnel that he did not heed. The Stranglers had begun as a soft-rock band before jumping on the punk craze, and this startingly nonchalant return to their roots demonstrated that by 1979, punk as a fad was indeed dead and the Stranglers need no longer even bother to pretend that they still cared. Unfortunately, the ill effects of the drugs spilled over unto the final two tracks, "Meninblack," and "Genetix," which are psychedelic atrocities complete with backwards instrumentation, electronically treated vocals, and gibberish about aliens that suggested they'd been listening to Devo records on mushrooms. Harbingers of shapes of things to come, for the next LP would run with those ideas for a full-blown psychedelic concept album about space aliens - for better or worse? Read the next installment of this blog to see.
The four bonus tracks are the weakest batch yet. "Bear Cage," is an enjoyable if unexceptional single, that keeping with the newly politicized Stranglers, is sung from the perspective of an East German who feels like he's wasting his life in a country where he has no economic prospects for a hopeful future. "Fools Rush Out," is the bouncy but forgettable B-side. "N'Emmenes Pas Harry" - you can figure out what that track is all by yourself, can't you? And "Yellowcake UFO," is just "Genetix," played backwards. Real psychedelic, guys, just like the B-side of Napoleon XVI's "They're Coming to Take Me Away."