With Autoamerican and, now, The Hunter, Blondie has become more difficult to enjoy, even as the group has strained to become something you can “appreciate.” Appreciate for the potpourri of Third World rhythms, which are handled so well; for the diversity of the music, which runs the gamut from Grace Jones-style club funk to reggae and rap; and, finally, for the literariness of Debbie Harry’s lyrics, which sketch a desolate, despoiled modern world driven by primitive passions. The trouble is, so intent is Blondie on making bold statements about contemporary malaise, and underscoring them with portentousness, that even on the most upbeat numbers you find that you’re reacting dispassionately (as in think, ponder, ruminate) as opposed to emotively (as in get up, dance, involve yourself).
This is a far cry from the ebullient Bowery-gone-big-time pop of Blondie’s first four albums. Nowadays, Blondie aims to strike a cool, inscrutable pose anytime a shutter is clicked, or a thirty-two-track machine turned on. In short, the band has supplanted its rock & roll wit with acres of brow-furrowing attitude. Yet the group is loathe to surrender completely the clout that chart-topping singles and platinum LPs have allowed it: amid the offbeat stylistic jumble of The Hunter, we find Blondie carefully hedging their bets, offering what amounts to cloned versions of the hits from Autoamerican. “Island of Lost Souls” is the new LP’s “The Tide Is High,” complete with Ricky Ricardo horns, steel drums and jaunty ska beat. And “The Beast” is this album’s rap number, ostensibly about a Godzilla-like creature whose nighttime peregrinations through a trendy urban underground are not far afield from those of his guitar-munching counterpart in “Rapture.” Though Harry’s pancultural heart is in the right place, her rap diction is about as convincing as, say, trying to imagine Dick Clark belting out “Soul Man.”
Despite their transparent Top Forty aspirations, these two songs do play into the record’s overall concept. In the main, The Hunter describes an urban Babylon (Blondie’s Manhattan?), summoning the lush, exotic imagery of jungles and desert isles, with all of their virile, teeming abundance. On The Hunter, Blondie has moved from a heart of glass to the heart of darkness, their churning, insistent rhythms navigating you down an Amazon River of the mind. “Orchid Club” summons you with tribal drumming that commences low, like something heard downriver, and then gets louder, as if you’d chanced upon some weird fertility rite. Soon, you catch the tantalizing fragrance of sin and temptation: it’s there in the forbidden fruit found on “Island of Lost Souls” and “Orchid Club”; in the city hustler’s patois of “The Beast”; in the paranoid daydreams of violence that undergird “War Child”; and in the speed-freak sci-fi fantasy of “Dragonfly.” All of this pungent erotica finds a unifying metaphor in the album’s final track, a cover of the Motown classic “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” which Blondie has recast in a sinewy, atmospheric arrangement. The implication, I suppose, is that the pursuit of pleasure and excess finally overtakes the pursuer, and that you wind up lost on a spiral staircase of sensual diversion, left with only the diversion itself to contemplate.
All well and good, perhaps, but the austere, foreboding tone of this record suggests that Blondie has forgotten how to have a good time, and how to make one. There are exceptions: Jimmy Destri’s “Danceway” is an organ-driven raver that rocks out to a rope-skipping beat, and Debbie Harry assays a sweetly backward-glancing vocal on “English Boys.” So, too, “For Your Eyes Only” has a seductive melody that lingers in the mind.
By and large, though, The Hunter is an album of icy, otherworldly moods for moderns, a looking glass trained upon our own peculiar, self-consuming social mores. At the least, it’ll have you wondering just how far an erstwhile New Wave pop group can row itself away from the mainstream before it finds itself out of the current altogether. If nothing else, The Hunter should make for some interesting chart-watching.