Scritti Politti – White Bread Black Beer (Nonesuch)
Pop For Romantic Literary Theorists. . . .
There is a concept that sometimes arises that has it that in order for a work for art to be completely understood, it is necessary to have contingent knowledge associated with that particular work, knowledge of such things as context and references and suchlike. The Thing-In-Itself may be a whole, or complete, but by having the contingent knowledge it becomes, quite possibly, something else because one’s relationship with the work changes by having a more thorough or informed understanding of what it is. The greater the level of contingent knowledge, the greater the acuteness of assessment.
All of which is to say that Green Gartside may be too clever by half.
Once a member of Scritti Politti, Gartside now is Scritti Politti. White Bread Black Beer is performed by Gartside in its entirety. As he is not, apparently, some sort of musical polymathic virtuoso (think Todd Rundgren), this Emersonian self-reliance makes the instrumental backings of Gartside’s plaintive vocal renderings much weaker than those on the group’s earlier work (that is, when it was a group), especially 1989’s Provision, which brought in no less than Miles Davis to play trumpet on some cuts. Gartside’s synth sounds just don’t have the same resonance—to put it with profound understatement. But his layering of vocals, especially on “Mrs. Hughes,” is evidence that he’s in Brian Wilson terrain, despite the fact that SoCal is a long, long way from Wales.
While some people undoubtedly dismiss Scritti Politti’s work as pop, which it is, it is pop that, in effect, undermines pop. Or so it sets out to do. Which brings us back to the contingent knowledge. Like the name of the band, glommed from early 20th century Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Or the fact that lyrics have referenced Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Derrida, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. This is not pop territory. On the disc at hand, the opening track, “The Boom Boom Bap” is quite possibly a variation on the zaum style that was pioneered by the Russian Futurists or a rendering of the type of sound poetry that was performed by Kurt Schwitters. Or consider this lyric from “Petrococadollar” (can you say “portmanteau word?”): “If you don’t have the wherewithal / You don’t need the why.” Few—if any—pop lyricists would even know how to spell wherewithal, to say nothing of using it in a tune.
While it is good to have some new Scritti since the last release, Anomie & Bonhomie of 1999 (yes, there’s that lit-studies major approach at it again), it is a bit disappointing that there is too much Wonder and not enough Guinness. Still, “Robin Hood” (which is not ostensibly a paean to the redistribution of wealth) is almost a Scritti Politti anthem, and it’s about time there’s been one of those.