After a nearly 30-year gap between records, Los Angeles’ punk laureates X have dared to make a new album. As recently as three years ago, they said they would never even try to record something new. Even though the four musicians that recorded their landmark Los Angeles album had been playing together again for two decades at that point, they swore up and down that the chemistry wouldn’t be there. Luckily for them, they were wrong.
Alphabetland, the band’s eighth album overall and first with virtuoso rockabilly guitarist Billy Zoom since 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand!, is a rare animal among comeback records — it both feels like a continuance of the band’s classic Eighties sound and it’s actually good. They’re still obsessed with the same themes vocalists John Doe and Exenne Cervenka have detailed eloquently in the past — freedom, fearlessness, and fun (and not always in that order) — in typically poetic lyrics.
That’s great and all, but it’s the way they tap into the classic X vibe that makes it work: Cervenka and bassist Doe still strain to harmonize with each other, Zoom still whips out the sort of hip-daddio licks that got him a gig with Gene Vincent before X, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake pulls it all together with rhythms that emulate beach rock as much as the Ramones. Best yet, they don’t waste your time: Only one song tops the three-minute mark, and the whole thing is done in 27 minutes.
Perhaps the reason they were able to pull it off is because three of the songs date back to their formative years. They’d cut demos of “Delta 88 Nightmare,” “Cyrano deBerger’s Back,” and “I Gotta Fever” (then titled “Heater”) around the time they made Los Angeles and its equally awesome 1981 follow-up, Wild Gift, and even released them as bonus cuts on reissues in recent years. “Delta 88” and “Fever” are both lickety-split punkabilly ragers, while “Cyrano” (a version of which appeared on their 1987 album See How We Are) is a sweet, swinging retelling of the Rostand play with a hook that stays in your head (plus, for good measure, a Billy Zoom saxophone solo). Although the musicians sound more mature playing these songs than they used to (and Doe and Cervenka’s voices blend better than in their glory days), you can hear how rejuvenating it is for them to rage on some classic X.
Likely building off of that feeling, the group wrote eight more tracks that also might as well have been teleported from the early Eighties. When Doe and Cervenka sing, “Let me go free/Don’t tell me I can’t … to a promised land,” they sound like the mean it, as if the past 40 years never happened. They still lambaste class disparity (“Water & Wine”), joke about infidelity (“I could have been … a double-crossing wife, I was in another life,” Cervenka sings on “Star Chambered”), and chronicle life’s mundanity (singing about getting drunk on New Year’s on “Goodbye Year, Goodbye”) in a way that sounds cool.
The only head scratcher is the album’s closing cut, “All the Time in the World,” a jazzy, spoken-word track with Cervenka’s bummer verses about dying and atmospheric guitar courtesy of the Doors’ Robby Krieger; it’s a novelty you won’t want to hear more than once. But even then, Cervenka’s sentiment lamenting that everything in life “was fun while it lasted” would fit right at home on any of their previous records. Now all they need to do is that fun feeling, and their moment, going for the next LP.