As a culture, we tend to dismiss the aging rocker, and often unfairly: it seems like we dismiss bands that have been around for twenty, even thirty years or more as passe. Somewhere along the line, a few musicians in the twilight of their career started seriously phoning it in, and as a result, once a band reaches its sell-by date, we tune out. Sometimes we’re right – you could argue that the Stones’ last acceptable album dropped in ’97, and even that’s a stretch – and sometimes we’re wrong, as anybody who’s listened to R.E.M.’s latest will attest. Why do you think the Beatles’ legacy remains so perfectly preserved? They never got the chance to tarnish it with last-gasp albums and reunion tours.
Ah, but then there’s Blondie. Genre-hopping punk pioneers with a penchant for huge, radio-ready choruses; blessed with a charismatic and stupid-hot chanteuse in pop-princess predecessor Debbie Harry; prone to staying ahead of the curve on radio trends, embracing disco, rap, and canned-reggae in several of their biggest early singles; responsible for some of the most perfect pop records of all time. (If you’ve ever owned a Gwen Stefani album but not Parallel Lines, shame on you.) When they went on a lengthy hiatus and seemed destined for wistful time-capsule fodder, they regrouped and came back with No Exit 17 years after their last studio album. Blondie circa 1999 sounded fantastic – rejuvenated, as restless as ever, and with their gift for terrific, plus-sized choruses intact. They managed a late-in-the-game renaissance without diluting their spirit; if their latest, Panic of Girls, sounds less exciting by comparison, it’s only because a Blondie record that sounds like the work of the same artist across the board doesn’t really sound that much like a Blondie record.
Panic of Girls finds Harry and company buckling down and making an album of electro-pop designed, perhaps, as a throne-reclaiming victory lap for the woman who painstakingly laid the groundwork for Lady Gaga, Madonna, Stefani, Ke$ha, and Katy Perry; sometimes, she eclipses the very artists who took her style to the bank, as in “What I Heard”, a slab of gloriously synth-y adolescent drama that Miley Cyrus would kill for. “Mother” cashes in on that favor that Katy Perry owes Blondie for her career by weaving “Hot ‘n’ Cold”‘s workaday chord structure into a killer chorus, and it proves that Blondie still have it, if only in fits and starts – along with later track “Love Doesn’t Frighten Me”, it’s the closest Blondie come on this entire record to the dizzying power-pop heights of No Exit and it’s flagship single “Maria”. Blondie also proves that their “secret” weapon is their band dynamic – Clem Burke is a powerhouse drummer, and Chris Stein an accomplished and diverse guitarist, but Panic of Girls showcases that so rarely that it tingles the spine when it actually happens. (Burke’s fills on “Mother” edify the soul, to be sure, but nowhere do the two interlock as perfectly as they did on the aforementioned “Maria”. Alas, lightning in a bottle.)
Other songs sound like watery versions of the ones mentioned, with the exception of a smattering of genre pastiches tossed into the mix; the feather in Blondie’s hat is their ability to pull off a convincing style homage – if you claim not to like the charming faux-reggae of “The Tide is High”, for example, the world will know you’re a liar – but, with so few of them in the stable this time around, their quality is often disappointing. When Blondie dabble in reggae – a genre white people have been trying to co-opt for years now – they come off well: “The End the End” is pleasant enough, and Debbie’s girlish coo makes a too-faithful cover of Sophia George’s ear-candy hit “Girlie Girlie” not only palatable, but perfectly delightful. (It helps, too, that Debbie avoids resorting to the borderline-offensive patois imitations that certain music writers who shall remain nameless employ to sing Shaggy songs at karaoke.) And yet, other forays into international waters don’t fare quite as well, as Latin-pop homage “Wipe Off My Sweat” might be the most noxious song this terrific band has ever recorded – it comes replete with Harry deploying grade-school level Spanish language come-ons and a grating electro beat; it also comes about ten years too late to capitalize on the zeitgeist. And the less said about “Le Bleu”, the better, except that it sounds a little “Le Douche” in its overblown French For Dummies chorus; Flight of the Conchords perfected the “en francais” pastiche with “Foux du Fafa” a couple years back, and it’s twice as fun, not to mention hilarious on purpose.
But, water under the bridge, Blondie. This isn’t their best record, by a long shot, nor is it the high point of their still-going-strong comeback. Still, they’re making better records than most of their peers, and, pleasantly enough, they still go for the gold when it comes to those cotton-candy choruses. If they’re a little more varied and textured next time around, then that’d be just terrific – if not, well, Blondie gave you “Atomic”, so you pretty much owe Blondie your patronage forever. At the rate they release records, Debbie Harry will be in her 70s when their next record comes out; I, for one, can’t wait to see how she’s gonna one-up the young bucks as a legitimate senior citizen.