Not a band known for being tenuous or cautious, Gang of Four made their mark in 1979 with Entertainment!, an album as infamous for its scratchy, abrasive post-punk sound as it was for its radical leftist politics. And, of course, it spawned the oft-repeated legend about the word “rubbers” keeping “At Home He’s a Tourist” off the charts. But despite a history of confrontational music and an uncompromising presence, Gang of Four didn’t so much dive into the aughts as wade, touring sporadically, re-recording some old songs for Return the Gift and then laying relatively low for five years. In the years that transpired since their last album, Mall, and their reunion, the band members found themselves split among different countries, with new jobs and lives, thereby making the leap into making music again a tricky one. Add that to the unpleasant economic reality of being a band, which even the most legendary of post-punks aren’t immune, and one can easily understand Gang of Four’s hesitancy to leap back into the fray.
Nonetheless, after six years of build-up, Gang of Four finally took that leap and recorded Content, their first new album in 21 years. Funded in part by an incentive-based pre-order program that rewarded the highest bidders with t-shirts, signed lyric sheets and even blood, Content finds the band working on their own terms, returning to the jerky, caustic sound that marked their earliest and best work. Founding members Jon King and Andy Gill along with new rhythm section Tom McNeice and Mark Haney pound out a record of pulsing, hard-grooving bangers, the band’s newbies more than picking up the slack of their now inactive predecessors with beats and basslines that scrape and throb with maximum intensity.
From a songwriting perspective, much of Content feels closely aligned to the group’s work on Entertainment! and Solid Gold, but louder, faster and perhaps even more aggressive. That may be due in large part to updated recording techniques and technology, but there’s no denying the ferocity that Gang of Four brings to the album. Opening track “She Said” kicks off with a sputtering, tense intro, building up the anticipation before the menacing, pounding chorus, with King’s vocal refrain, “She said ‘you made a thing of me’” sounding like a call to arms. The sinewy interplay between guitar and bass on “You Don’t Have to Be Mad” recalls the plodding, rhythmic churn of Solid Gold, while “Who Am I,” which finds King asking, “who am I when everything is me?” is as good a mixture of dance and protest as the band has ever stirred up.
As Content progresses, the band unleashes even more intense highs along with a share of unexpected and strange diversions. Funky standout “I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face” is essentially an update of “I Love a Man in a Uniform,” albeit with the cheeky military innuendo replaced with eerie voyeuristic statements like “everyone was on display.” The harsh clang of “Never Pay for the Farm” explodes into one of the most intense moments on the album, but in the album’s second half, the band slows the tempo and explores their more spacious instincts. “It Was Never Gonna Turn Out Too Good” lays the vocoder on thick, which marks the first time Gang of Four ever sounded like Kraftwerk. Yet closing track “Far Away” offers only a slightly more restrained variation on the group’s tightly wound punk-funk, ending the album with just as much power if not quite as much volume.
Given how many years Jon King and Andy Gill have under their belts as members of Gang of Four, their various shifts, incarnations and splits, that Content sounds as fresh and edgy as it does reveals just how true the band remains to their art. Neither softened by age nor deterred by challenges of profitability, Gang of Four have proven themselves more than just a nostalgia act, but a band that’s still vital and exciting more than 30 years after their arrival.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.