YOU CAN READ the title of Gang of Four's new album Content one of two ways: Accent the first syllable, and it's the reductive name our internet era gives to any creative output (a reading reinforced by the gleaming, garishly lens-flared container on the cover). Accent the second syllable, and it's an expression of comfort, if not quite real joy. Are you content? Is Gang of Four's new album? And one question the band has always danced around: Will buying this thing truly make you happy?
If the group's penchant for socio-politically charged wordplay has endured over the years, a lot has changed since they debuted with 1979's punk funk stunner Entertainment! The original lineup split after 1981's Solid Gold with the departure of bassist (and Portlander) Dave Allen, then later drummer Hugo Burnham after the 1982 release of Songs of the Free (which includes the fine single "I Love a Man in a Uniform"). Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill soldiered on with Hard in 1983, later reuniting to record two more diminishing albums, 1991's Mall and 1995's Shrinkwrapped.
Since then, the former Leeds art students have gone on to successful careers in production, A&R, academia, and even advertising. That last one is good for an ironic chuckle if you mistakenly took the band for hard-line Marxists at one point, but in fact their most political songs were almost always about the internal personal conflicts of life in modern consumer society, not about its imminent overthrow by the proletariat. (Looked at this way, the recent placement of "Natural's Not in It" in an Xbox ad becomes more like a delicious inside joke, the lyrics not heard in the ad: "The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure?")
In 2004, the original lineup reunited after 23 years to tour their classic material and to re-record their early songs as 2005's Return the Gift, a move which "corrected" the original material's low fidelity, wrested some royalties from EMI's hands, and perhaps acted as a commentary on the confining expectations of nostalgia and reunion tours. While touring, the band fired Burnham and began writing new songs, but in 2008 Allen left the band again amid disputes over everything from songwriting credits to methods of distribution. (A lengthy discussion between Allen and author Rick Moody on these and other subjects can be found at iamdaveallen.com).
The original rhythm section was obviously a huge part of Gang of Four's appeal, and the cheap shot is that with Burnham and Allen went the last shred of the re-formed band's credibility—but Content doesn't quite bear out such criticism. Certainly it lacks the anxious funk of Entertainment!, and perhaps doesn't entirely deliver on the promising live spark of the reunion shows, but it's a surprisingly solid, if mellowed, return to form. And songs like "You'll Never Pay for the Farm," with King's bitter couplets delivered over Gill's sharp spikes of guitar, and the dolorous "A Fruitfly in the Beehive," could stand alongside any of the band's best work.
In their prime, though, Gang of Four seemed like more than merely a punk band injected with funk and stocked with clever quips about capitalism. Songs like "Anthrax," and even the self-critiquing sleeves of their early releases, were plays at formal disruption—détournements of both content and delivery. At its worst, Content merely fails to break any new molds (even with the ill-advised addition of a Vocoder). It's a Gang of Four album that meets expectations. Is that what you wanted?