Unlike most of the defunct groups that have reunited lately, the Gang of Four conveys a positive sense of purpose — unfinished business rather than unpaid bills — on the bracing Mall, the innovative band’s first new studio album in seven years. A decade before funk-fired rock became trendy, these British radicals bucked the roaring punk tide to underline their stinging ferocity with dance rhythms, winning feet and minds with hard beats, shattering guitar bursts and articulate leftist thought. Now that rocking dance music is postpunk’s leading currency, guitarist Andy Gill and singer Jon King — the songwriting half of the original Leeds quartet — have boldly stepped off the pedestal of punk-era legend to rejoin the musical race, making a welcome and credible contribution to a movement they helped create.
Working with guest drummers, bassists and vocalists, King and Gill have wisely avoided the trap of playing stylistic catch-up with today’s trendsetters. Following the duo’s own advice of “Don’t Fix What Ain’t Broke” (a blistering new chant-song that strongly resembles the Gang’s classic “I Love a Man in a Uniform”), Mall basically proceeds from Songs of the Free (1982), updating and expanding the sound without compromising the band’s essence.
An adventurous, often gripping album that flirts with commercial appeal while indicting American consumer culture, Mall more than justifies the Gang’s return to active duty. The belated Vietnam War tableau “F.M.U.S.A.” serves as the record’s devastating centerpiece, intercutting spoken recollections by a Vietnamese woman who “lived in tunnels… I was married, and very happy… I dream too, Yankee” and a soldier “from Detroit, Motor City … hunting that Saigon Poontang … stoned out of our fucking trees” with melodic narration, cinematic sound effects and free-fire guitar strikes. Other tracks deliver equally substantial messages that match the exciting music: “Money Talks” parodies supermarket-tabloid headlines and calls General Noriega “a pineapple on the U.S. payroll,” while the poetic “World Falls Apart” outlines a grim portrait of the homeless. Ironically, some of the strongest-sounding tracks pack the least verbal punch. The opening track, “Cadillac,” drives with industrial power, but its disconnected collection of hip haiku doesn’t add up to anything; likewise, the litany of idealistic beliefs listed in “Colour From the Tube” are intriguing but collectively pointless. Despite such flaws, however, Mall is a triumphant resurrection, returning a potent and progressive musical force to power.