A Certain Ratio took to slap bass like Petrarch did to the sonnet. At the dawn of the 1980s, while many white UK artists emulated the endorphin rush of disco, the Manchester combo sounded more like lower Manhattan acts like Material, or the David Byrne of The Catherine Wheel. Fascinated by punk’s abrasiveness, they laid harsh guitars over flippy-floppy syncopations. Once a while they boogied, especially when Martin Hannett stopped producing their albums (the same thing happened with New Order); singles like “Bootsy” served up a serviceable secondhand shimmy. Alas, singer Jez Kerr makes Bernard Sumner sound like Nona Hendryx. ACR have kept at it, though, and 2020’s ACR Loco was a vibrant little surprise. Frenetic, well-paced, haunted by memories of sweltering clubs and new 12" singles, their new album 1982 is their best album since 1986’s Force.
The album sounds fabulous: It gleams like a freshly cleaned dancefloor. Every hi-hat hiss and rhythm lick asserts itself. Re-imagining themselves as a benign interstitial force between their influences and imitators like !!! and LCD Soundsystem, ACR enter their fifth decade with the vigor of a young opening act confident about kicking the headliner’s ass; it’s as if the UK group crafted a response to “Losing My Edge” two decades later, reasserting that no, in fact they haven’t lost one iota of it. And they have questions. “Am I just going through the motions?” guest vocalist Ellen Beth Abdi asks in “Afro Dizzy,” a vaguely Afro but not very dizzy track whose highlights include a call-and-response trumpet line and a clavinet solo. “Are you moving forward or are you on a constant curve?” goes a line sung over the chirping electronics of “Constant Curve,” a line they might’ve asked themselves in 1982 itself. On the “Fame”-like “Samo,” Kerr declares, “Jean-Michel and Andy was right,” as the song’s instrumental swirl invokes the totemic glamor of those figures.
Attractive in its distillation of received pleasures, 1982 functions as a history lesson about a fecund era, and, boy, they own the warts too. ACR aren’t one of those acts for whom listeners can separate the occasional clunk in the lyrics from the sinuosities of the grooves: The flattest tracks sport the worst lyrics (“A Trip in Hulme”), the shit-hot tracks are the funnest to sing along to (Donald Johnson’s percussion bed in “Holy Smoke” is a delight on headphones and definitive in the living room). A small-scale attempt at self-mythology, “Ballad of ACR” ends the album with a demonstration of what these people do best. A folky acoustic section eases into relaxed free jazz while Kerr poeticizes the artistic wanderlust of a band that in a knavish era risk failure for the cause of white funk. Most importantly, no bass guitars were harmed in the making of this track.
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