Earth Day 1990 was a very big deal. Held on April 23, a Sunday, it marked the pinnacle of an upswing in green consumerism and a transition for the environmental movement from the tree-hugger stereotype (marked by activist lawsuits and civil disobedience) to one based on the actions of everyday citizens in their own homes. (The feel-good vibe that day wasn’t universally praised; commentators noted that many corporations used Earth Day-related “Go Green” advertising to camouflage their horrendous environmental records, and Time magazine even called the panoply of corporate-sponsored activities “a commercial mugging” of the movement.)
Still, thegreenlifeonline.org estimates that more than 200 million people in 141 countries participated in Earth Day activities that year; for my future wife and myself, then residents of Washington, DC, it was a glorious day to head for a liberal’s-wet-dream rally on the National Mall featuring Michael Stipe, the Indigo Girls, Billy Bragg, and 10,000 Maniacs, among others. (It wasn’t for nothin’ that some wag somewhere soon joked that Natalie Merchant’s next record would be titled Cycling to the Recycling Center.)
Not present in DC that day, but having ingratiated himself with environmentalists and modern rockers alike that month, was World Party frontman Karl Wallinger. (“Frontman” being a relative term; Wallinger mostly carried the whole World Party in his hands, though by 1990 he had begun working a bit with future Robbie Williams collaborator Guy Chambers.) The “band” had just released its second album, Goodbye Jumbo, a week earlier, and the record was packed with green themes – from the title itself (lamenting the recent placement of African elephants on endangered-species lists) to lyrics that were by turns pointed (“Is It Too Late,” “Take It Up”) and elliptical (the single “Put the Message in the Box”).
Such a focus was nothing unexpected coming from Wallinger, who had touched on geo issues and activism in general on World Party’s debut, Private Revolution. In fact, that album’s title track can be heard in retrospect as something of a blueprint for the shift in the green movement’s focus toward consumers, with its suggestion that listeners “revolutionize at home” because “there’s a planet to set free.” Elsewhere, the now-classic “Ship of Fools” didn’t deal specifically with ecological concerns, but its “we’re-behaving-irresponsibly” message was apparent from its central metaphor (a boat adrift “on an endless sea”) as well as its key line, “You will pay tomorrow.”
The central track on Goodbye Jumbo, “Put the Message in the Box” is a more hopeful counterpart to “Ship of Fools” – a kinder, gentler follow-up, to borrow another end-of-the-’80s turn of phrase. “See the world in just one grain of sand,” Wallinger asks, and “don’t let it slip right through your hand.” Then he goes over what Sarah Palin might today call the hopey-changey deep end:
The world says
Put the message in the box
Put the box into the car
Drive the car around the world
Until you get heard
This is a wonderful song, let there be no doubt … but where to begin with the difficulties inherent in the lyric? Maybe with the inevitably muffled nature of a message that’s been stuck inside a box? Or perhaps with the challenge of driving a car around the world? (Not on today’s melted ice caps, you won’t!) I suppose you could always load the car onto Karl’s Ship of Fools for the overseas voyage, but let’s not forget that said ship was “setting sail for a place on the map from which no one has ever returned.” I don’t see how the message (whatever it is) will be heard from there, whether or not you ever take it out of the box.
Moving on … Goodbye Jumbo begins with the alternately lamenting and encouraging “Is It Too Late?” – a track whose funky, vaguely exotic percussion more than faintly echoes the opening track on a then-recent album by one of Wallinger’s contemporary heroes, Prince. The song’s message also tracks with that of “Sign Of the Times,” though with less specificity – its one unambiguous note has to do with those elephants, or rather with his dream about an “elephants’ graveyard … a bone-dry place” that made him wonder “why there was no more rain.” “Is It Too late?” isn’t the first recorded evidence of Wallinger’s Prince fetish, and there would be more later on Goodbye Jumbo – most obviously on “Love Street,” which could have been an Around the World in a Day outtake, and “Show Me To the Top,” with its more straightforward Purple Rain vibe.
In other places Wallinger wore his other musical obsessions, British Invasion and Dylanesque ’60s pop, on his sleeve. The cathartic climax of “whoo whoos” on the terrific single “Way Down Now” is lifted directly from “Sympathy for the Devil,” while Hollies-esque guitars ring through “When the Rainbow Comes” and the keyboards on “Take It Up” sound like Al Kooper had just stepped out of the sessions for “Positively 4th Street.” Many critics have been unable to get past Wallinger’s predilection for homage – which, admittedly, could occasionally veer into outright larceny – but at least he came by it honestly (or even subconsciously), having claimed to have recorded note-for-note remakes of the Beatles catalog for his own edification.
Besides, the modern-rock bona fides of Goodbye Jumbo were undeniable. Though tethered to classic-rock tradition, “Way Down Now” and “Put the Message in the Box,” not to mention album tracks “Ain’t Gonna Come Til I’m Ready” and “Take It Up,” fit perfectly on the radio in 1990. And the album as a whole is a stunning accomplishment – one that earned its Album of the Year recognition from Britain’s Q magazine, as well as World Party’s lone Grammy nomination, for Best Alternative Music Album.
Goodbye Jumbo probably was Wallinger’s creative pinnacle, though he achieved slightly more commercial success in the U.K. with its follow-up, 1993’s Bang! Here’s hoping he succeeds in his struggle to regain his previous renown, now that he has returned to recording after an aneurism that nearly derailed his career in 2001. Word is he’s hard at work on a new album … but then again, that’s been the word ever since 2007, shortly after his comeback effort Dumbing Up was released. Hey, Karl! Stop noodling with that remake of “Alphabet St.,” and give us something that’s just slightly more 2010, willya? We could use it – particularly if you can cook up something as magnificent as Goodbye Jumbo.