The ’90s were dark times for fans of the punk rockers-turned synth soul popsters Scritti Politti. They — and by ‘they,’ I mean ‘he,’ as in the band’s singer and sole survivor Green Gartside — released a couple of singles in 1991, including a reggae cover of the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman” which featured a then-unknown Shabba Ranks, but Green decided against recording another album, and spent the remainder of the decade lying low. Damn.
Fast-forward to the end of the century, and Green stuns the world by finally releasing Anomie & Bonhomie (1999), the band’s first album in 11 years. And if people were stunned by the sight of a Scritti Politti album in 1999, they were probably dumbfounded by its sound. Green abandoned the hyper-arranged synth stylings of Cupid & Psyche ’85 (1985) and Provision (1988) in order to get down and dirty with a bunch of contemporary hip-hoppers, primarily Mos Def. In Green’s defense, there were elements of the signature Green style in songs like “First Goodbye” and “Mystic Handyman,” and truth be told, this “new direction” should not have come as a complete surprise, given Green’s love for R&B.
Still, the album was a shock to the system, to say the least. Even the non-hip-hop songs had little in common with vintage Scritti – the hard-driving “Here Come July” sounded like Green fronting a completely different band – but there was one moment where Green seamlessly combined his past with the present, and that was on the opening song “Umm.” The song is built like a Big Mac; the beginning, middle and end are a dub-ish interlude, the verses and pre-choruses are pure acoustic guitar-driven power pop (including a key change in the latter the second time around), and the chorus sports an irregular time signature and the words, “I wrote you a letter, and I told you you were dead,” followed by Green’s trademark ooh la la-la-la vocals.
And this is all good. But the special sauce is what knocks the song out of the park.
After the second chorus comes something that you have never heard in your life on a Scritti Politti album. Riffing off the guitar line in the first part of the chorus, Green sits back and lets the band go to work. The guitar line is louder, grittier, the drums pound a slow but determined beat, and a female guest – the credits do not say who performs on which songs, but I’m pretty sure that it’s Me’Shell Ndegeocello – lets rip with a ferocious spoken-word bit (it’s close to rap, but not really). Again, absolutely unlike anything Scritti Politti has done before or since…and it might be the coolest thing they’ve ever done.
Rob Sheffield once commented in his Rolling Stone column that Anomie and Bonhomie “blows homeless goats.” I can appreciate the sore disappointment that anyone hoping for another “Absolute” or “Perfect Way” might feel upon listening to this, but come on, Rob, it was 1999. What did you honestly expect from them? Isn’t it funny how we demand certain bands to evolve, while others must remain exactly the same? Unfortunately for Green, he’s stuck in the latter category; luckily for him, he couldn’t care less.