Many pop music enthusiasts considered the return of Culture Club in the late 90s with the classy and sophisticated “Don’t Mind If I Do” album (unreleased in the US) to be the return against all odds. Band-member Roy Hay described the second chapter of Culture Club as an opportunity to sweeten the bitter after-taste left by the band’s unsavory demise after the release of their “From Luxury to Heartache” album in the late 80s. Sadly, the return was short-lived and the skepticism around the future of Culture Club was further amplified by the band’s split after “Don’t Mind If I Do” and the ill-fated “Culture Club Reborn” project (featuring a new lead singer named Sam Butcher). Hence, when the band’s original members (including the iconic lead singer Boy George) reformed for a few concerts in late 2011 and performed a fantastic new track titled “Universal Love”, it lit the first flame of anticipation for yet another return by Culture Club for two reasons. First, it had been over a decade since their last album. More importantly, “Universal Love” was indicative of a band that had revived their collective inner musical spunk. That being said, the tease for new material has lasted for almost five years and has manifested itself in several ways. The band started performing new material on their tours dating all the way back to 2015. Noteworthy highlights from the new material include the reggae-infused “Let Somebody Love You” (the lead single for the new album “Life”), the sublime “Human Zoo”, and the groovy “Like I used to”. They also released the U2-esque single “More than Silence” in November 2014. It seemed like 2016 was going to be the year the new material finally saw the light of day in the form of an album titled “Tribes”. Unfortunately, that got put on hold despite being complete. At that point, there was less than a glimmer of hope for new material. All of that changed towards the end of 2017 when Boy George and his bandmates from Culture Club announced on an Australian television interview that their album was due to BMG Rights Management by the end of March 2018. This was the first ray of optimism to emerge from the Culture Club camp. It left many asking whether “Life” would be the album that could catapult Culture Club back into the limelight.
When the tracklist was announced, it met with some disappointment – mostly because of songs that had already become fan favorites (through online leaks and the live performances by the band) but were conspicuous by their absence on the tracklist. Noteworthy examples include the up-tempo “Hard Times” (somewhat reminiscent of the band’s hit single “Miss me Blind” and featuring a hypnotic vocal section by Boy George), “Like I used to” and “Universal Love” (the song that suggested that the band’s best was yet to come). It is my sincere hope that these songs do get released as part of a deluxe version of the new album “Life”. I think our concern that the band may have jettisoned their finest tracks from the album is shared by many fans. A part of me wondered if this disappointment would extend to my feelings about the album as a whole. Fortunately, that was not the case.
Like its predecessor “Don’t Mind If I Do” , “Life” largely flits between down-tempo and mid-tempo tracks and features glorious reggae-infused gems such as “What Does Sorry Mean” and “Let Somebody Love You” . There appears to be no attempt on the part of the band to tailor their sound specifically to 2018. That approach works in their favor as the songs have a rather timeless quality to them. The production, while exquisite, does not drown out the stellar artistry that these songs showcase. In a mainstream music scene in which musical instruments seem to be an afterthought, it is exhilarating to hear a thumping bass, euphoric trumpet sections (e.g. “Resting Bitch face”), lush string arrangements (e.g. “Oil and Water”), and the snarl of the electric guitar. Boy George’s voice has undoubtedly matured for the better. He has shed the youthful voice that characterized his earlier musical offerings for something deeper and huskier. In the context of the new songs, the new and rejuvenated voice truly works. That being said, some of that remnant youth in him does surface every now and then on the album.
Other than the singles that have already seen the light of day, the album does have two essential expansions to the Culture Club legacy. In the first few seconds of the reggae-tinged “What Does Sorry Mean?”, one cannot help but draw parallels to Bob Marley’s hit single “Waiting In Vain”. Through his lyrical poetry, Boy George paints a crystal clear picture of a girl with a toxic addiction to a man that repeatedly hurts her and feels not even an iota of remorse. His lack of guilt is characterized by the song’s chorus:
What does sorry mean?
When tears are seldom seen
What good is regret
If you don’t feel it yet
The song’s Middle 8, buoyed by dreamy string arrangements, is the album’s most sublime moment. The sparse drizzles of keyboard over the song serve as beautiful sonic embellishments to a song that is already quite perfect.
The second highlight is “Human Zoo”. Those who have heard this song being performed at Culture Club’s concerts from a few years ago will notice that the song has been revamped by UK-based production duo Future Cut. The new incarnation of the song is a vast improvement over the seemingly perfect original. This song serves as a ray of optimism for the hopeless romantic as it encourages the lost causes in love to keep searching for love in the “Human Zoo”.
The album has a couple of pleasant surprises. Those that associate Culture Club with joyous uptempo pop such as the band’s signature single “Karma Chameleon” might be surprised by the dark album opener “God and Life” – a song that would NOT be out of place on the US #1 Depeche Mode album “Songs of faith and devotion”. The second biggest surprise is the dramatic rework of “Runaway train” – a song routinely performed by Culture Club at recent concerts which is reminiscent of something that belongs on a collection of dull oldies. The new version is funky and moderately uptempo and most reminiscent of the material that propelled Culture Club to the upper echelons of stardom in the early 80s.
The only aspect of the album that prevents it from making the jump from being fantastic to flawlessly perfect is the exclusion of songs such as “Hard times”, “Like I used to”, and “Universal Love”. That being said, it is safe to say that “Life” just might be the album of 2018. It showcases the reignited sonic chemistry of a band with a turbulent interpersonal dynamic and proves that great collective artistry can transcend seemingly insurmountable barriers in the form of conflicting (but artistically brilliant) personalities. The twenty year long wait for this return from pop icons that have left an indelible impression in the photo-montage of pop music history has been worthwhile. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another two decades for the next offering from these musical geniuses.
STAR RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
In case you did not pick up on this earlier, the blog you are reading is affiliated with Radio Creme Brulee – an online radio station that features an eclectic mix of current pop and rock music from both sides of the Atlantic alongside hits, forgotten gems, and rarities from the last three decades. The music of Culture Club (both old and new) is a regular staple on our radio station. We don’t restrict ourselves solely to the singles. Currently, “What Does Sorry Mean” by Culture Club is getting high-rotation airplay on our station. Alongside newer artists, we also play plenty of newer music by bands that rose to prominence in the 80s and 90s. Noteworthy examples include Simply Red, Wet Wet Wet, Tears For Fears, Suede, The Corrs, Dubstar, Duran Duran, Camouflage, Spandau Ballet, INXS, Depeche Mode, George Michael, Johnny Hates Jazz, Simple Minds, and Jamiroquai.
Give us a spin when you get a chance.
We just might become your alternative of choice!