Mark Stewart – The Politics of Envy

Mark Stewart hasn’t gotten enough credit. His ironically named Pop Group unleashed some of the most musically and lyrically caustic sounds of first wave punk-funk (for all the talk of the Gang of Four’s leftist stances, it was Stewart’s crew that devoted an entire b-side to stark recitation of documented human rights abuses). In the mid-80s he teamed with sonic terrorist Adrian Sherwood and along with stablemates like Tackhead Sound System pushed dance-dub experimentation to new heights. Stewart’s never really gone away but, perhaps emboldened by Occupy Wall Street’s tailwinds, he’s unexpectedly burst forth with the most extroverted album of his winding career.

The Politics of Envy is a star-studded affair, finding Stewart enlisting cohorts primarily from his ’70s/’80 heyday. With a couple of exceptions, the day is carried by Stewart’s trademark stun gun sequencer effects and spoken/chanted declarations of his dystopian worldview. “Let me talk to the driver/ He is taking me somewhere/ I don’t want to go/ No! No! No!” he implores on the verge of hysteria on “Codex,” creating a disquieting aura that permeates the record. The compelling “Autonomia,” a collaboration with Primal Scream, offers more straightforward blown-out dance rock – without the liner notes one would be hard pressed to discern its connection to the death of a protester at the G8 Summit. He essentially turns over “Gang War” to Lee “Scratch” Perry (not a bad thing), but Stewart really excels on “Gustav Says” and “Baby Bourgeois” when he recruits female backing vocalists to offset his vitriol.

The Politics of Envy covers a lot of ground in a rather exhausting 47 minutes, and runs aground in its final quarter as Stewart shifts to beatless, downtempo moodscapes.  But he recoups for a stunning finale – Keith Levene unfurls a guitar riff worthy of Public Image’s Metal Box on “Stereotype” while Stewart duets with the Raincoats’ Gina Birch, revealing a shred of tenderness in what feels like a pop turn in the sense of Wire’s occasional forays into the genre.

In the end I’d file The Politics of Envy alongside last year’s Gang of Four album, under “esteemed stalwarts acquitting themselves nicely without matching their career highs.” Actually I’ll give Envy the nod between the two, as Stewart exudes the greater creative spark.

Mark Stewart
The Politics of Envy
[Future Noise]