The Buzzcocks are likely the consummate New Wave singles band. Last year’s Singles Going Steady, a compilation of sixteen sweet-and-sour pop vignettes that made up this English group’s official American debut, boasted as many pithy hooks and punchy backbeats as Elton John managed in a decade — and the Buzzcocks whipped theirs out in a little over eighteen months.
These guys have a problem, though. The Buzzcocks have yet to cut an album that hits with as much musical wallop as even their most offhand singles. God knows, it isn’t for want of trying. A Different Kind of Tension, technically the band’s fourth LP, is bursting with many of the same laudable features that graced the Singles Going Steady set: bold and big-bottomed rhythms, combustible buzz-blur guitars and leader Pete Shelley’s rushed, iambic vocals. But over the course of an entire album, the Buzzcocks invariably convert these virtues into vices, resulting in a catchall of reworked riffs and static, similar tempos.
That said, A Different Kind of Tension is the Buzzcocks’ most formidable record yet. Though the group still tends to spout a ceaseless stream of arty non sequiturs — e.g., “When it comes to playing games/Of who are we/We’ve never found out why though/That our own raison d’être/We can’t see” — chief songwriter Shelley has finally arrived at something approaching a hard-bitten and reasonable world view. Largely, it’s a wry, ironic blend of pessimism, amorousness and alienation that fuels such lines as: “Though I’ve got this special feeling/I’d be wrong to call it love/For the word entails a few things/That I would be well rid of.” Later, in “Money,” he’s even more resigned: “You are a stranger/But I’m even stranger/What can I do/Life’s getting stranger.”
But Shelley’s strongest statement comes in “I Believe.” Founded on a fierce, saw-toothed rhythm, the song is a long litany of simple credos, covering everything from the Workers’ Revolution to the Immaculate Conception, only to be intercut with the singer’s poignant, staccato cry: “There is no love in this world anymore.” Pete Shelley might be saying that, without love as a guiding ethic, most beliefs mean little. But given his brave-new-world bias, he probably means just what he sings: there is no love in this world anymore. So what we choose to exalt in its place had better be something more than splayed beliefs. Not bad stuff for a singles band.