Dark Matters, The Stranglers’ 18th album and the band’s first release for almost a decade, is a true triumph over absolute adversity. Eleven songs that click together despite their differences, part lament, part world view and part history lesson.
The Stranglers ‘Dark Matters’
LP| CD | DL
Rel Date: 10th September 2021
In typical Stranglers’ style, Jean Jacques Burnel, bass/vocals, Dave Greenfield, keys/magic, Baz Warne, guitar/vocals and Jim Macaulay, the drummer who stepped in for founder member Jet Black when he hung up his sticks, took nascent versions of some of Dark Matters‘ songs on the road as far back as 2018.
‘Water’, which opens the record, was one of those, and it’s realised all its potential in the studio – equal measures of rock ‘n’ roll and reportage, great separation, bass and keys playing off each other in classic Stranglers pattern.
‘This Song Will Get Me Over You, Payday’ and ‘The Last Men on the Moon’ have also been out there on the live setlist, and they too have grown much more muscle at the hands of producer Louie Nicastro.
I thought ‘This Song’ would be THE song on ‘Dark Matters’. Certainly, the big rhythm and Baz’s crunchy guitar riffs made it a firm favourite on the road, albeit behind an atypical lyric. It turns out ‘This Song’ is, in fact, a cover, or ‘their song’, they being Welsh four-piece The Disciples of Spess and, contrary to critical opinion, it hasn’t been ‘Stranglerised’. It’s true to the original, albeit LOUDER.
Spess are unabashed Stranglers fans, which makes it a stronger force somehow, a nod to the band’s legacy. But much more than that, it turns out ‘This Song’ is simply a great track on a fantastic record, nothing more.
The first single from the LP, ‘And if You Should See Dave’ is Burnel’s tribute to his bandmate of 45 years, “musical genius” Dave Greenfield, who died in March 2020, whose keyboards kicked sand in the face of conservative ‘punks’/critics back in 76/77, and brought a brilliant edge to the Stranglers’ myriad sounds over the years.
He didn’t fear death
‘Cause he knew death was on his rounds
But no one told him I was waiting
With a glass at the bar
‘Dark Matters‘ is JJ Burnel – galvanised by Greenfield’s passing – finally casting the Hugh Cornwell monkey/shadow/black dog/spectre off his back to deliver something truly special, aided and abetted by Dave Baz and Jim across eight tracks.
Whispers from the wilds of yore on songs like ‘No Man’s Land’ – which, in its mad time signature prog-punk magnificence – has no sense of nostalgia. The Stranglers don’t standstill.
The order of the ‘Dark Matters’ songs is the truly old school concept. Designed to foster a Side 1 straight into Side 2 listening experience rather than pandering to that 21st century, diminishing attention span ‘grab the caramels from the corner of the chocolate box and run’.
Burnel has never been this prolific across a single piece of work and the delivery, the mix of electric menace and maelstrom with a clutch of acoustic numbers draws the listener in and holds on, tight given the chance. And the lyrics are equally telling and teaching.
It’s fairly well documented that ‘Water‘ was inspired by the Arab Spring and ‘Payday’ is a tale of comeuppance. Still, Dark Matters is deeply personal too, accepting the marks of time, Starry Starry Night-style on ‘The Lines’, while decrying the consequences.
‘If Something’s Gonna Kill Me (It Might As Well Be Love)‘ ‘Our glory’s far behind us, and I miss you’ is another song for Dave, albeit one where the music featuring Greenfield came first. ‘Down’, all piano and acoustic guitar, is ambiguous enough that it could be about him too. ‘Like the sun coming out, from behind the clouds, you appeared and never let me down’.
Proven songwriter, straight-ahead singer and guitar virtuoso Baz Warne is the perfect foil for Burnel. Delivering on all the promise, Warne takes songs like ‘Payday’ and ‘White Stallion’ around the next corner before handing them over to ‘fifth Beatle’ Nicastro in the producer’s chair.
‘White Stallion’ is the prime example of new model Stranglers. It’s huge. The strong opening bass riff swallowed whole by a real wall of sound and Burnel’s tale of Trump and the trials of the West, delivered in fabulous voice, sitting on top. Grown from a sketch by the bassman, coloured in by Baz Warne and embellished by Nicastro, it’s one of Greenfield’s eight songs but only by way of the organ pads he laid down pre-Covid. Prescient perhaps on the album’s penultimate piece.
‘Breathe’ closes Dark Matters and it’s a big – nearly six minutes – cinematic waltz. A love song, perhaps, but the title is so of the moment. It’s much more than that, too—a fight for life, for living. And okay, those ‘Golden Brown’ keys might be just a glance over the shoulder.
I don’t know how the Stranglers follow a record like this. Or if they want to. Put the vinyl/CD/cassette on – or stream it if there’s really no other option – and give ‘Dark Matters’ your time.
Punktuation’s Verdict: 5/5
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Writer/hip old gunslinger. Written about/reviewed live music records/recording for years – in the process interviewing Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, David Johansen & Syl Sylvain, Pete Shelley & Steve Diggle, Hugh Cornwell, JJ Burnel, Dave Vanian & Captain Sensbile, Seggs, Jaz Coleman, Youth and more…