Buzzcocks are in the midst of an unprecedented revival. I rack my brain to figure out a single band that's pulled off an exceedingly late career turn-around like this, and I can't honestly think of one. While the band's reunion physically took place some fifteen or so years ago, it seems to only have come together spiritually with 2003's Buzzcocks. Self-titling a record some 27 years into a career of a long-established band is a pretty presumptuous move in itself. Of course, Shelley and Diggle intended to signify a rebirth of sorts, but there's a well-established precedent working against them. It's pretty much a rule that old bands are labelled as such precisely because their best years are behind them. If anything, they should be quietly touring and selling t-shirts to their old band fans.
Yet, Buzzcocks was really rather good.
Excellent, in fact. That record has more of a punk fire in its belly, more drive and purpose than the majority of what was released that year. The "new school" was putting forth a pretty decent effort (Revolutions Per Minute, ...Burn, Piano Island, Burn, Guitar Romantic, Eternal Cowboy) and the veterans league was keeping pace.
Buzzcocks was also a bit of deck clearing. After years of quasi-successful songwriting experiments, it was perhaps more of a straight-forward punk rock record than the band's early material. Flat-Pack Philosophy starts from this plateau, but finds the band writing quirky pop songs again. The songwriting is branching slightly, utilizing some different rhythmic ideas in particular, but it's all quite safely (and smartly) framed in that sound that worked so well in 2003.
The title track establishes this quite well, driving the record's underlying criticism of consumer culture home in as blunt and musically forceful a way as possible. It's on the album's second song where the Pete Shelley we adored for reinventing the love song as a warped little punk tune emerges. "Wish I Never Loved You" is perfect. Much like `03's "Friends," it utilizes an unreal melody that Shelley climbs higher and higher into the chorus. By the time he reaches the "tell me why" refrain, it's quite clear that nobody, despite all the bands he's influenced, can write like this. The bratty lovelorn voice the band made famous on their early singles makes further appearances here on songs like "I've Had Enough" and "I Don't Exist."
Steve Diggle's contributions are a tad more workmanlike, never quite attempting the lyrical and melodic gymnastics of his counterpart but providing the flesh on Shelley's jangling skeleton. The dynamic is essential though, as Diggle's succinct, by-the-books punk songs, from the lean "Soul Survivor" to the midtempo "Big Brother Wheels," anchor Shelley from ever wandering too far from what makes the band work. "Wheels" in particular takes some wonderful melodic ideas and builds them to a snarling refrain (of "jackboots stamp all over the place" -- proving that when punk bands aren't exhaustingly political, little defiant turns of phrase can be remarkably effective).
Perhaps it's because Flat-Pack so successfully balances Shelley's penchant for weird little pop songs and Diggle's understanding of nonsense-free punk rock that the album's darker, lyrically tougher material is less engaging. "Sound of a Gun" and "Between Heaven and Hell" may have worked better on the eponymous record, but it's hard to take the band seriously singing "everybody shakes to the sound of a gun." It's simply not in character. However, with few songs breaking the three-minute mark the few stumbles thankfully don't drag on the record at all.
Flat-Pack Philosophy is another remarkably strong record from a band that all logic says should have fizzled out long ago. I'm at a loss to explain this bewildering yet wonderful revival, but we're lucky it's produced a second high quality record. Where this goes now and how long it keeps up is anyone's guess, as Buzzcocks are clearly at a career stage few bands ever reach, let alone succeed in.