by Preston Radtke
The latest studio album by famed punk/disco group Blondie stays with you. After dutifully absorbing the 46 minutes of confusion and sheer awkwardness, one would hope that the memory of such an experience would perish from your mind. But alas, it doesn’t. You’ll notice signs of Pollinator for days to come. The thud of a passing train will instead become a mismatched, overly sleek synth section. Conversations with people you thought were deep and intellectual will take on a more simple, and frankly foolish tinge. And most of all, Debbie Harry’s voice will stay with you. She will be the mournful echo to your benevolent existence. Instead of talking with your friends or significant others, your psyche will be blitzkrieged by specter-like repeat of “Does it take you a long time? Does it make you upset?”
“Yes! YES!” you’ll undoubtedly shout, resulting in your friends placing you in the local psychiatric ward.
Pollinator is a bad album. The time of mourning what Blondie once was has passed. Pollinator’s cringey lyrics, cliché rhythms and disgusting vocals have driven out all sentimentality and fondness for the band. Tylenol is heavily advised.
Vocals: From experienced to old
The most offensive qualm with Pollinator is the vocal display by the intrepid Debbie Harry. Once the poster child for the whole punk/disco New York scene, Harry’s voice has gone the way of Atlantis. Her voice is no longer soothing, sensual and smooth; now, it’s no short of rough, decrepit and mispurposed. Songs like “Fun”, “My Monster”, and “Already Naked” are depressing exemplifications of just how out-of-touch Harry’s vocals are. Throughout this album, and especially on “Fun”, Harry’s vocals take on a playful, pop-infused tenor. Her vocal patterns lend themselves perfectly for anthemic, left-leaning works that both the indie and pop crowds could get behind. The problem is, her voice is just so old and out-of-place that these songs at best sound awkward, and at worst sound flat-out awful.
Harry’s voice is in fact salvageable, but she needs to sing slower tempo and perhaps jazzier songs. “Here’s Looking At You” off of 1980’s Autoamerican is an effective blueprint of how Harry should vocalize with her accelerated age. Never one to live in the high notes, the small vocal climbs that Harry does adventure in result in ear-achingly awkward and ineffective messes that leave the listener in a state of annoyance and sympathy toward the once-renowned vocalist. The only slight shining moment for Harry on this album is found in “Long Time”, the second released single. The track features a “Heart of Glass”-sounding vocal refrain in the build-up to the chorus that Blondie handles passingly well. Unfortunately though, that refrain is so obviously close to, and copied from “Heart of Glass” that the listener’s judgment is clouded by nostalgia from the blondest age of Blondie. On it’s own though, her refrain is average at best. Sadly, that was the highlight of Debbie Harry’s performance off Pollinator.
Writing: “Call Me” when you can write better lyrics
Blondie’s lyrics were never meant to – and should never – be taken too seriously. The punk band basked in the glory of creating a feeling and atmosphere with their lyrics, not starting a revolution or providing epiphanies. That in mind though, Pollinator’s lyrics are particularly cringe-inducing. “Doom or Destiny” finds Blondie purging the lyrical biosphere in the region of clear objects as metaphors: “Clear as a crystal ball”, “clear as a diamond”, “clear as a pane of glass”, etc. The obvious classic Blondie reference aside, the album is riddled with overdone motifs and thematic lyrical constructs that a band going on four decades of musicianship should avoid.
Additionally, the writing reveals too many obvious, corny rhymes and patterns for anyone’s good. The zenith of Blondie’s dismal rhyming and patterning is found in the overly cutesy and radio-begging song “Fun”, where Harry very bizarrely delivers the line “You know the problem with you”, followed with the answer “You’re too good to be true.” Instances like these and the previously mentioned lyrical clichés just make it all the more apparent that Pollinator is an album begging to be played on the local adult contemporary stations; one of those stations with blatantly fake and cheery morning shows, and the same stations that start playing Christmas music the second November 1 comes around.
It should be noted though; Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke are not the only people to blame for Pollinator’s painful writing. The eleventh Blondie album found input from at least ten other artists and composers. From guest vocals to guest writing, the album featured a veritable who’s-who of rock and pop heavyweights. So, with that, the lyrical blame spotlight must also be shone on Sia, Dev Hynes, and Charli XCX, three musicians who, again, should have known better.
Feeling: This album needs a Harry-cut
As bad as this album is, it legitimately could be an okay experience without Debbie Harry. She is in fact the only thing holding Pollinator back from being an effective dance floor record with pop and punk influences. Ignoring Harry’s voice (as truly gut-wrenching as that is to do), songs such as “Doom or Destiny”, “Long Time” and “My Monster” all feature dreamy, alluring synthetics that create an accessible, dance-ready experience with whispers of mystery and screeches of revelry. “Love Level” has the most advanced and effective instrumental work on the album. The song kicks off with a simple, yet heavy and mood-setting drum intro by Burke. Once the guitars and Harry enter the fold, they are backed by a synthetic horn section that provides texture and direction for the song.
The album features minimal nods and allusions throughout to past Blondie successes. The horns on “Love Level” sound oddly similar to “The Tide is High”, perhaps the most popular and controversial Blondie song of them all. If Harry was the devil on Pollinator, Clem Burke was God. His drumming was efficient and tempo-setting. As on most albums, the drummer blends in to the sound of the music, not sticking out in any major fashion. Burke, however, is the main catalyst for the song’s aesthetic and mood, his drum orchestrations providing the adequate amount of punch, gentleness, and personality for virtually all of the tracks on the record. Unfortunately though, a drummer can only be so effective. Burke’s work is still massively overshadowed by Harry’s mess.
Also in the Pollinator Family:
The B 52’s: The B 52’s
Bryan Ferry: Boys and Girls
The Human League: Dare
All images from DIY Magazine
Preston is a Emerging Media and Design major. His favorite things include: Seinfeld, The band Sleater-Kinney, Denim jackets, and traveling. When I’m not writing for Byte, he’s working on his thesis dealing with Transmedia in music marketing, working on his very amateur novel, and spending way too much money on restaurants.
Debbie Harry’s vocal performance can best be described as awkward, old, undynamic, and misplaced. The record would honestly be better off if Harry was replaced, or if there wasn’t actually a singer. 0
Fortunately, the writing is better than the vocals. But not by much. Clichés, predictability, and pandering abound. 2
Instrumentally, this album is surprisingly not that bad. The blend of synthetics, guitars, and drums provide perfect accompaniment and at times, leads for the prose, vocality and lyricism. Synthetically though, more textures and levels could have been implemented to take the focus away from Harry. The instrumentals had such potential in this album to create a unique and diverse experience for the band, an experience that could have catapulted them in to a new genre. House? EDM? Ambient? Alas though, they couldn’t do that, for they still had Harry, and they still wanted to nip at the Top 40. 5