If you’re at all aware of Blondie’s discography and in particular their two ground-breakingly successful and, even some four decades later, hugely influential albums, Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat, then you’ll know that the temptation to judge the band’s subsequent material based on whether it could have appeared on one of these seminal records is near unavoidable.
Pollinator, the native New York band’s 11th album, will be heralded, doubtlessly, as a return to form, as has already been applied to many of their post-Autoamerican comebacks. This record isn’t that. It never reaches the heights of their Imperial phase, and like all their latest releases is inconsistent and patchy, albeit with moments of rushing euphoria courtesy of lead singer Deborah Harry’s sparkling, still soaring voice – at least, when provided with songs big and clever enough for her to build a home in. You just have to take the rough with the smooth when it comes to second generation Blondie.
Pollinator was recorded with all the current band members in the studio together, an instruction from super-producer John Congleton (St Vincent, Angel Olsen, and more recently Goldfrapp) who wanted to capture the chemistry and egos in an environment which had previously provided them with their best (and worst) work. Recent Blondie records have included various guest musicians and vocalists but Pollinator takes this to another level; a variable roll call of current artists as well as long established friends of the band including Charli XCX, Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Sia, The Strokes, Johnny Marr, Laurie Anderson, Joan Jett and David Sitek. Though under the supervision of Congleton rarely does this eclectic, eccentric ensemble result in a loss of the band’s identity or sound as though they are guesting on their own record, a problem that plagued their 2014 release, Ghosts of Download.
Dev Hynes contributes Pollinator’s best song, ‘Long Time’, clearly understanding the successful aspects of the band’s DNA. It’s great to hear Harry sing the line ‘racing down The Bowery on a crowded afternoon, dripping from the down-pour of your insecure typhoon’ and the images this conjures up, on a track that doesn’t sound as though it’s a desperate rewrite of their greatest hits but ends being one of the band’s most effective songs for decades.
‘Already Naked’ and ‘Too Much’ continue to successfully pilfer the band’s signature sound – those effortless melodies and Clem Burke’s drum patterns still shine. But ‘My Monster’, clearly aiming for the same, suffers from a formulaic arrangement and Charli XCX’s ‘Gravity’ is bubblegum that’s lost some of its flavour while the Joan Jett featuring ‘Doom or Destiny’ plods instead of pounds.
A track that will divide many is the Sia submission ‘Best Day Ever’, which goes against type as it is not recognisable as a Furler track (they almost always are) and avoids her usual bombastic metaphors. It has a rugged, wobbly charm which appeals more with each play.
The album’s closing track is a cover version of a track that you are unlikely to have heard before. ‘Fragments’, originally by An Unkindness, is a slow-fast-slow seven-minute opus that due to the intense rawness of the arrangement, sonically and vocally, and the stream-of-consciousness lyrics render it as the record’s sleeper track. ‘But do you love me yet? Fucking prove it,’ Harry demands in an eye-rolling threat that is deliciously alive with incredulous anger and proof that this band, one with a 71-year old singer, can still on occasion, be as vital and energised as when they first stepped on the stage at CBGB’s in 1975.
Pollinator could have done with more of this tight, unapologetic attitude and swagger, but there is still enough here to ensure that those familiar or not with Blondie’s back canon will have fun as the band’s constant wit and Deborah Harry’s scathing and seductive presence again save the day.