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Mark Stewart, ‘The Politics of Envy’ (Future Noise)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: March 26, 2012
Label: Future Noise

“This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision.” That was Mitt Romney, after taking New Hampshire’s Republican primary back in January. Not sure whether Mark Stewart had already picked his new album’s title by then, but it’s timely either way.

Truth is, though, Stewart’s always been ages ahead of the game. He started out mashing up James Brown, Captain Beefheart, Big Youth, Ornette Coleman, the Last Poets, and the Cortinas, then never looked back. Hectoring, far-left, free-jazzed, tribal-skronk funk-punk (e.g., 1979’s epochal single “We Are All Prostitutes” and its impossibly titled B-side “Amnesty International Report on British Army Torture of Irish Prisoners”). William Burroughs-sampling industrial dub-rock. Militantly didactic wheels-of-steel metal-rap. Data-blast helicopter-and-dog-bark proto-trip-hop. Premonitions of digital hardcore, electroclash, grime, and dubstep.

Between his late-’70s Pop Group days and a couple of astounding mid-’80s albums made with British dub god Adrian Sherwood, Stewart got there before Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, Ministry, Trent Reznor, Michael Franti, Prodigy, Atari Teenage Riot, Kevin Martin, Gang Gang Dance, and Skrillex, not to mention before you or I. His friends in Massive Attack, and his one-time flatmate Tricky, and entire sections of his Bristol hometown owe him their sound and livelihood.

And then there’s the Occupy movement. Here’s the hook sampled from some commentator or news dispatch in “Hypnotised,” the Top 10 U.K. indie-charting single from 1985’s prophetically titled As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade, Stewart’s second album with his band the Maffia (which by then included Grandmaster Flash’s guitarist and rhythm section): “Seven percent of the population, 94 percent of the wealth… pay it all, pay it all, pay it all back.” Doesn’t say what those figures pertain to, though it’s presumably the homeland of Bain Capital, and the balance has certainly worsened in the subsequent 27 years. The album’s title track predicted sophisticated surveillance cameras, magnetic I.D. cards, power structures plotting to “break the back of organized labor.” Even earlier, on 1983’s insanely dense and dystopian Learning to Cope With Cowardice, Stewart evoked the desperate young gun-buying man from Elvis’ “In the Ghetto,” described corporations “bigger than any nation-states,” and entertained visions of a population who should be storming Liberty City’s walls, but are instead neutralized by constant work: “Struggling to pay the rent, their main worry’s job security / The busier you are, the less you see.”

All of which is to say that Mark Stewart has paid his income-inequity dues. Between 1987 and 2008, he put out four more albums of jigsaw jazz and get-fresh flow — spottier, more subdued, and less sonically deep than his early stuff, but never embarrassingly so. There was a Soul Jazz anthology in 2005, a silly “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow”-interpolating Adamski collaboration in 2007, a documentary in 2008, a live Pop Group reunion in 2010. On a seven-inch last fall, he revived T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution,” suggesting that (just like the Scorpions, who likewise covered it mere months later!) he’s still paying attention to kids fighting austerity in the streets. And now there’s The Politics of Envy, which thanks to political timing and its cameo cast (Lee Perry, Richard Hell, Public Image Ltd. guitarist Keith Levene, London synth-noise up-and-comers Factory Floor, assorted members of the Raincoats/Slits/Massive Attack/Primal Scream/Killing Joke/Jesus and Mary Chain, plus film renegade Kenneth Anger playing theremin) shakes out as Stewart’s most visible collection in decades.

The first few tracks, especially, make for a perfectly paranoid Occupy soundtrack, paying tribute to demonstrators who “keep the dream alive” even when bombarded with rubber bullets and tear gas, bemoaning “the museum of forgotten futures” and all the “fucking in the carbon monoxide” and gang wars and hostage conspiracies, while chicken-scratch guitar, wailing muezzins, snooker-ball beats, Anglican church chants, and Italian soccer cheers get chopped into mad reggae reverb. “Autonomia,” the single featuring Primal Scream, conceived in tribute to cop-killed 2001 G8 protest martyr Carlo Giuliani, flashes me back to what New York’s great lost shortwave-in-the-sewer punks Chain Gang were doing on Mondo Manhattan in 1987 — about time somebody did.

A third of the way, through, Envy turns somewhat more conventionally electro-dance-y (if you can term the Neue Deutsche Welle riffs via ’80s Düsseldorfers Der Plan on the inscrutable “Gustav Says” coventional), then ultimately despairing: four varied but uniformly pessimistic-sounding tracks of disembodied goth-wave mood doom, including a cover of David Bowie’s 1969 “Letter to Hermione” stripped of groove and a cornier than probably intended but nonetheless haunted stop-off with Massive Attack poetry-slammer Daddy G at “the bar at the end of the universe” in “Apocalypse Hotel.” It’s the end of the world as they know it, we are still all prostitutes (ask Rush Limbaugh), and Mark Stewart feels fucked.

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