Genre: New Wave
Release Date: May 5, 2017
Length: 46 min.
Producer: John Congleton
Personnel: Debbie Harry (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar), Clem Burke (drums), Leigh Foxx (bass), Matt Katz-Bohen (keyboards, piano), and Tommy Kessler (guitar)
Special Appearances: Nick Valensi (guitar), Johnny Marr (guitar), Joan Jett (backing vocals on “Doom or Destiny”), The Gregory Brothers (backing vocals on “When I Gave Up On You”), John Roberts (backing vocals on “Love Level”), and What Cheer? Brigade (horns and drums on “Love Level”)
Earlier this year, Paramore released a quality new wave album called After Laughter. Surprising no one more than myself, I enjoyed that disc, but do you know who made a better 2017 new wave record? Blondie!
In the mid to late ’70s, Blondie became a big name in the underground, performing regularly at joints like the now-famous (but sadly closed) CBGB’s and gaining some serious street cred. Soon, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, and company had stirred up a striking musical concoction of a sound, a mix that combined the rowdy disposition of punk, the imaginative pop of Phil Spector, the energetic rock of the Who, the breeziness of reggae, and the electronic frivolousness of the disco and otherwise electronic music worlds. Debbie portrayed a dazed underground queen – at once dreamy, seductive, and grimy – with a wink and a nod, and the band behind her was solid. Little did they, or anyone else, know just the impact Blondie would eventually have. In fact, it’s hard to imagine what the popular music landscape would look like without Blondie.
Even so, when I heard Blondie was making a new album, I hesitated. Can a 43-year-old group headed by a 72-year-old frontwoman sound fresh and exciting? The answer is, yeah, more or less, they can.
The band does lack some of the gleeful energy they once so effortlessly possessed, yet they have maintained a good deal of it. They still simply exude fun, especially, as usual, through Harry’s vocal performances. Her age occasionally peeks through, sounding slightly strained, but Debbie always wrangles those moments into appealing croons full of attitude. Her voice has never been one-hundred percent perfect, but she’s always turned her imperfections into embellishments. Harry isn’t the only one left in the saddle, either. Chris, Clem, and Leigh still have what it takes on the guitar, drums, and bass. In the end, Blondie does indeed sound exciting, and that’s great to see.
It’s also great to see a pop group this old so easily strike a balance between maintaining the sound that got them where they are, while simultaneously creating new sounds and exploring new directions, on top of being able to appeal to a modern audience and avoiding ham-handedness, haphazardness, or pandering. And they aren’t begging for our attention. They’re not desperate. In true Blondie style, this album says, “Here I am. Either you like me or you don’t.”
However, despite that temperament, and perhaps as a result of their desire to avoid irrelevance, Blondie worked with several younger artists on Pollinator to deliver the finished product. Sia, Nick Valensi of Strokes fame, Charlie XCX, and others stepped forward to these legends’ aid. Yet instead of those artists forming Blondie’s sound, the youth worked reverently with their elders, helping them create a work that is both truly now and truly Blondie.
To get into some of my favorite tracks, “Doom or Destiny,” the opener, kicks off the album with rolling drums, and Harry’s familiar voice immediately rushes in, accompanied by Joan Jett’s guest vocals. The track is the length of a punk song, the punk influences firmly present after all these years, too. “Fun,” a collaboration with David Sitek of TV on the Radio, is a funky, steamy description of an exuberant relationship without overlooking the negatives. “My Monster” features good writing, prominent synths, and a collaboration with Johnny Marr of the Smiths on a less positive look at a darker relationship. “Love Level” is a delightfully hilarious number and one of the few tracks solely written by Blondie.
The album closes with my favorite, a fantastic cover of “Fragments” by obscure indie artist An Unkindness, a project by Adam Johnston (better known for his YouTube channel, YourMovieSucksDOTorg.) “Fragments,” the way Blondie performs it, is a contemplative, questioning song that turns into an outright demanding snarl, afterwards ending on a retrospective note. It’s an outstanding track and an excellent end to the album. But, to be honest, I really enjoy the entirety of Pollinator.
I’m going to give Blondie’s Pollinator an 80%.