At present, The Drums, The Shins, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are all bands currently working with only one original member. As it turns out, the Leeds post-punk outfit Gang of Four have been in the Last Man Standing club since 2013, with only Andy Gill, the band’s original guitarist and backing vocalist, remaining. The distinct difference, however, is that the aforementioned four American bands all only came together as far back as the late nineties. Gang of Four, on the other hand, got their start over forty years ago, releasing their now legendary debut, Entertainment!, the year after the Sex Pistols threw in the towel.
On Happy Now, Gang of Four’s first full-length album in four years and their second full-length with vocalist John “Gaoler” Sterry, Gill and company do what they’ve done for the last four decades: produce danceable punk rock while punching lyrically at those in power. The problem with Happy Now isn’t the formula. The problem is the record’s sterilized-to-the-point-of-lifelessness production, which sounds completely out of place when paired with lyrics doling out Trump takedowns and sociopolitical concerns.
For the most part, Sterry’s vocals are fine, but at no moment during the album’s ten tracks (nine plus a bonus) does he attempt even once to showcase his range, nor does he stray even the tiniest bit from his steadfast, solemn croon. This isn’t to say that what Sterry offers isn’t decent, only that it would have been nice to hear him break out of his seemingly inflexible style for a moment to offer something uncharacteristically emotive in order to shake things up. Andy Gill’s guitar work, on the other hand, even when treated with studio effects, is consistently strong throughout, but unfortunately the majority of instrumental work on Happy Now is made up of bland, antiseptic, unoriginal electronica, sprinkled liberally with samples and glitchy effects.
Other than the poignant, spacey ballad “White Lies”, the songs on Happy Now all blend into one another, each one following a similar tempo without any distinct hooks or memorable choruses to help distinguish one from the other. This is unfortunate because the band obviously has a lot to say. The problem is that their message is consistently watered-down by the entrenched, clinical production which renders each track more forgettable than the one before it. Happy Now may play well on the dancefloor, and although Gang of Four’s thoughtful takes on current international events are as always affecting, those expecting a more compelling listening experience would be advised to look elsewhere.