How does a band follow up a debut that has been pretty much universally acclaimed as a masterpiece? The “sophomore jinx” is a cliché that dogs every band out there, even when their second album is as strong as their first (or stronger – c.f. Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings And Food or M.I.A.’s Kala) it seems that there are those who’d prefer not to see the advances that have been made, wishing instead for a retread of the first album. So when a band equals its debut, as Gang of Four has most assuredly done with Solid Gold, it’s a rare feat worth noting, and detractors be damned.
It’s true that the manic, political drive of Entertainment! has cooled a bit and been traded for slower tempos here, but the energy (especially the political energy and Marxist leanings that set them apart from their contemporaries) has not been dispersed, merely transformed into something that moves with the inevitability and irresistibility of tectonic plates. The first half opens with “Paralysed,” one of the band’s finest moments in their entire catalog. As the opening shot of the album, it’s an immediate signal that we’re in for something different here from Entertainment!, a slower, sparer approach. But dig into the song’s lyrics and you find the Marxist sloganeering of the debut turned into a deeper analysis, laying out how the protagonist follows the “pull up by the bootstraps” ideals of capitalism, moved by forces beyond his control through into joblessness and despair, speaking directly to the very real crisis of unemployment and striking labor throughout Britain in 1980. It’s a devastating and despairing critique where the band had previously offered up only skeletal phrases to sketch out an idea. And then the tempos start to creep up. For the remainder of the first half, they work their way from the frozen stasis of “Paralysed” up to the frantic, jumpy, punk-funk tension that characterized Entertainment!, even ending the original LP side with a great track, “Outside the Trains Don’t Run On Time,” that first surfaced on a single and later on the “Yellow EP” released between the two albums, though here it’s given an intensity that’s lacking on the single version. Along the way they hit another of their all-time best, “If I Could Keep It For Myself” – another manic, jagged guitar number very much in the vein of the debut album and easily as good as anything on it.
The second half kicks off with another treatise on the problems of day to day existence in a capitalist society – “Cheeseburger” – which alternates the band’s lyrics with taped interludes before the side continues its journey to the outgroove, culminating in two songs – one again culled from the “Yellow EP” – that lay out in the most brutal terms the position of women in the present society – perceived merely as worker, as property, or in the worst case scenario, as slave. The despair and anger that color this album are no less present than on the first though they add dimension to it, flesh it out beyond the barked phrases and pared down music. Part of the secret, one must assume, is not just the varied tempos, but also the beefed up bass on display, showcasing with an almost dub-like foregrounding the stellar bass work of Dave Allen. Of course between singer-lyricist Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, there are many touches that hearken back to the debut, while stoic, rock-solid drummer Hugo Burnham grounds every song, whether spare or agitated. The band followed their remarkable run to this point with another brilliant EP, “Another Day, Another Dollar” which premiered three excellent new songs and offered live versions of “Cheeseburger,” there attacked at a ferocious tempo and its samples yelled out manically by King to almost comic effect, and a take on “What We All Want” that yet again accentuates Allen’s bass work. After that, Allen took flight to join Shriekback and the band recruited bassist Sara Lee for their third album, Songs of the Free, a solid and enjoyable effort in the canon that featured their new wave club hit “I Love A Man In Uniform,” a great song that revisited their anti-militarism in a deviously pop-friendly guise. Then Burnham left the group and they moved on as a trio for the sorely mistitled Hard, inexplicably paired in this present version with the much more dazzling Solid Gold. Still, a bad pairing cannot diminish the brilliance of their second album, a record that time proves has earned its place right alongside Entertainment!