White Bread, Black Beer
udiences ignore the travails of an aesthete who digs Gaultier pants and Immanuel Kant. Critics are more stupid. But when the aesthete hires producer Arif Mardin and a coterie of New York’s finest musicians, outdoes Kate Bush in Fairlight synthesizer mastery, and listens to Debarge albums, the audience responds—and applauds. We can forgive Green Gartside almost any indulgence because Cupid and Psyche ’85 exists, because its lone American hit “Perfect Way” is being played by an ‘80s station as I type, because Green’s Michael Jackson imitation is way more convincing than Justin Timberlake’s (he may, in fact, even be a more convincing Justin Timberlake).
White Bread, Black Beer is only the third record Green’s released under the Scritti Politti moniker since CAP’85. He spent most of those years—by his own admission—in Wales blowing his dough on beer. Beware solitary drinkers. If you want to get lachrymose, at least make sure an audience slaps you around. With its laptop beats and closely mic’d intimacy, White Bread, Black Beer conforms to the dictates of a creator with endless time to play all the instruments and no one to please but himself, regrettably. The melodies are gorgeous, but so are Paul McCartney’s. What gives the album its frisson of fascination is Green’s invigorated take on distance, his favorite theme: in one of those yummy ironies savored by Green the post-structuralist, the aural vacuousness of WBBB itself embodies this distance—from the audience who paid for the ale-fueled exile.
The absence of human referents forces Green into self-reflexiveness. “The Boom Boom Bap” alludes to 1988’s determinedly weightless “Boom! There She Was,” although shunning the compulsion to create approximations of banality lends poignancy to the former’s clever delineation of how language fails at a moment of crisis. The best numbers, like “Road to No Regret,” tweak readymade phrases one at a time, compensating for failed song suites (“Dr. Abernathy,” “Mrs. Hughes”) betrayed by skeletal arrangements; if you’re emulating the Beatles, be sure you hire George or, better, Ringo. “Snow in Sun” and “Robin Hood” remind me of the glistening “Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry for Loverboy”). That song, with its mournful Miles Davis solo, relies on a third-person narrative to mitigate Green’s terrifying erotic desolation. He’s more cheerful these days, just tickled about being a loner. On “Robin Hood,” aggressive strumming frames his crème brulee vocals and these lyrics, his best ever:
I’ve been wishing my life awayGreen pauses between “king” and “one day.” It’s no accident that “Robin Hood” concludes the album; no follow-up is possible with a song whose last line is “Never never gonna go back,” punctuated with celebratory guitar peals. Wow. Never returning to syndrums. R.I.P. Robert Quine and Arif Mardin. This is not quixotic vagueness: this is a hortatory schemer hustling us. If you’re in Wales this summer, have a pint with the goateed Goliath. He’s the one playing darts with the locals. An amiable chap.
For Robin Hood to be king one day
We’ll share the treasures of the world
I will get the girl