Steven Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct, illustrates the power of words and even syllables through a humorous and revelatory passage using profanity. He says that inserting a profanity inside another word is part of that ‘instinct,’ that it works between certain syllables for effect, but not others. For instance, you say ‘abso-fucking-lutely’ rather than ‘absolute-fucking-ly.’ It just doesn’t work. The language of music, too, is instinctual, and no one knows that better than Green Gartside. I wrote at length about Gartside’s landmark album, Cupid & Psyche ’85, the album that introduced many to Green’s boyishly coy vocals and penchant for urban beats.
Despite a crippling fear of the spotlight, which caused a heart attack when he was merely 23, he has been unable to avoid a life spent in music, disappearing only to resurface with another album every now and again. White Bread, Black Beer is Green’s fifth album under the name Scritti Politti, and the first since 1999’s Anomie & Bonhomie, another experiment in hip-hop. With first single, and lead-off album track, “The Boom Boom Bap,” Green puts the draw to music in a way that is purely instinctual. “The yes, yes y’all, was the siren call to the sound of my life.” When Green sings at the close of the track, “I love you still, I always will,” he is referring to the world of music, and hip-hop in general, as he namechecks `Hollis crew’ and `Rock Box.’ But, many might find Green’s soulful falsetto far from traditional hip-hop, just as they did back in 1985. And no, it’s not traditional, but the beats and philosophies are the same, it’s just that Green has an incredible singing voice, even at 50 years old, and creates his own synth-powered masterpieces in his bedroom rather than using two turntables and a microphone.
In this way he’s similar to another lonely bedroom rocker. “Snow in the Sun” is like a stripped-down Brian Wilson track. Instead of layering on flourish after studio flourish, Green turns the song into more of an isolated and lonely Eels tune. “Throw” is as close as it comes to modernizing the sound of Cupid & Psyche for a new generation. This song alone brings a smile to my face as I revel in the triumph of the return of music from my past. I know that this might make me sound like one of those guys who goes to see washed up bands playing at the local Indian casino, but so be it. “Dr. Abernathy” is one of the most talked about songs on the record, rivaling some of the Beatles’ Abbey Road-era brilliance as well as XTC. Back in the ’80s, most pop music fans didn’t catch a lot of the philosophical references to Lacan and Derrida, just as today’s music fans might miss the line, “punks jump up to get beat down” from Brand Nubian. No one’s accused Green of being obtuse.
Overall, White Bread, Black Beer is fourteen tracks of blissful bedroom harmonies as only Green could present. Take for instance the vocal overlaps of “Mrs. Hughes,” which then turns into Simon & Garfunkel calming folk, and then changes up once again to another late Beatles jam. It’s tucked away close to the end of the album and is well worth getting to. For those who think I might be alone in my reverence for this ’80s relic, take a look at the nominees for this year’s Mercury Prize. Alongside the Editors, the Guillemots, Hot Chip, Muse, Richard Hawley, Thom Yorke and winners the Arctic Monkeys is Scritti Politti. No, it’s probably not easy being Green, but there’s nothing quite as pretty as Scritti Politti. And as soon as you stop groaning, I’ll answer the question, “Is White Bread, Black Beer that good?” Yes, abso-fucking-lutely.