They’re with Stupid

To answer your question, no, they haven’t tried to make “Tubthumping II.” Chumbawamba are perfectly aware that most of their listeners think their 10th or so album is their second, and they’re beating everyone else to the backlash. The only song on WYSIWYG that could pass for halftime music is a marching-band house anthem called “Smart Bomb,” but it vanishes after two minutes, and anyway it calls out Dubya by name. (So long, Jock Jams 7.) The nominal single, “She’s Got All the Friends,” doesn’t seem to have been thought out beyond the first line of the chorus, and stops dead for some Zappa-style doo-wop comedy halfway through. Ka-thunk.

Maybe that’s just guilty self-sabotage, because WYSIWYG is otherwise a magnificent piece of entertainment-against-entertainment, as tight and bouncy as, um, a halftime show. Chumba’s chief objection to pop culture, the subject of nearly every song here, is that it’s incredibly stupid, which is also why they like it; their entrée into the pop mainstream was thumping on a big dumb tub. But that also makes them complicit, and they know it: A loop of somebody spitting “stu-pid stu-pid stu-pid” keeps fading into the mix, and the album ends with a candle-in-the-darkness singalong that condemns the band along with its audience. “Are the words to this song concise enough to follow?” they purr. “We’re dumbing down, dum-de-dum-dum.”

The other targets of their contempt are not exactly hard to hit—sitcoms, McDonald’s, Calvin Klein, the commercialization of the Web—but these are targets for good reason, too. And Chumba’s attack on one of the fattest, juiciest bull’s-eyes anywhere, “Celebration, Florida,” has a great big smile with blood dribbling from its corners. Two Chumbas harmonize like a feel-good commercial, sticking in the Disney-planned community’s name at the end of every line, with tasteful Hammond organ throbbing faintly in the background and B.J. Cole cooking on steel guitar; it’s almost a minute before they drop in a line about “keeping out the deviants,” and even then they sing as though they find social engineering a little bit sexy.

Their problem is that it’s hard to get away with mocking mass culture, reveling in it, and being part of it at the same time. WYSIWYG has more slogans than any album this side of Fear of a Black Planet (“Where do you want to go today?” “I’m with stupid,” “If you can bake a cake you can make a bomb,” “A splendid time is guaranteed for all who can afford it”), and it’s tempting to assign Chumba to the wrong side of them. Their Christmas present to their fan club was a cute fake girl-group single called “Tony Blair”—not that a band that once contributed to the Fuck EMI compilation and later signed to EMI Electrola really has much business singing lines like “Tony now you date/All the girls you used to hate/So I don’t believe a single word you say.” And the import single of “She’s Got All the Friends” includes a plug for something called Copy Kills Music, which is not exactly sporting for a band that samples Negativland.

But if you can accept that Chumbawamba are, as the South Carolina hardcore band In/ Humanity put it, “Circle A Spice,” then what you get is what you see, and maybe what you want. Listening to WYSIWYG is thrilling, like watching 100 channels of cartoons with a remote that keeps going off on its own. It rarely goes more than a few seconds without some new soundbite or production gimmick or countermelody providing a shiny distraction. Half of its songs come in under the two-minute mark, though 45 seconds of a Damien Hirst joke called “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Jerry Springer” is just about right. Also, they get points for realizing that “I got a plastic toy with my Happy Meal” can be sung to the tune of “Surfin’ Bird.”

They take a deep breath and get serious only once, on a radiant close-harmony version of “New York Mining Disaster 1941″—which the Bee Gees picked up from the English trad folk singer Martin Carthy, who calls it “a great piece of collective imagination.” For two minutes, Chumbawamba sound like what their mythology says they are: a bunch of radicals from Leeds who started living and singing protest songs together more than 15 years ago; who carried on a backstreet affair with the straight world’s sweet stupidities, fell in love, and eventually went legit, with all the compromises that entailed. It’s also WYSIWYG‘s only intimation that there’s something they care about enough that they’d skewer the rest of the world to protect it—even if it’s just the sound of their own voices.

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