It’s a strange combination of wonderful and surreal that I should be typing a review of a new X album in 2020. A key proponent of LA punk in the late 1970s, X was the most digestible, most capable and most likely to scale heights in the music world. All necessary elements were in place, but despite best efforts over a run of 4 flawless albums, the band never quite broke out of the LA underground and onto the billboard charts like the Go-Go’s or Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
This is being sold as the band’s first new album in 35 years, which bothers me a little. It’s a tagline that whitewashes 2 important phases of band history, conveniently ignoring the existence of SEE HOW WE ARE (1987) and HEY ZEUS (1993). Puritanical dogma will always insist that X was finished once it stopped sounding identifiably punk – That’s fine for rabid fans of the band in its original configuration, but you don’t see chunks of Meat Puppets, Minutemen or Replacements catalogue retrospectively disappear to pander to revisionism or kowtow to a sales pitch…
Although this was lined up for August 2020, X decided to release it on April 22 via Bandcamp to a captive audience amid lockdown… an undeniably smart move and X being X, the fanfare and press excitement seems to have immediately taken care of itself.
Fat Possum Records released the DELTA 88 NIGHTMARE / CYRANO DE BERGER’S BACK 7″ as a precursor back in November 2019 – A taste of what X was going to sound like 27 years after the band’s last studio album, and 40 years after the legendary debut. So, I guess the big question is… why did this take so long?
X has been reaping the rewards of its iconic status on the live circuit for about a decade and a half now, and it’s not as if any of these people have been inactive on the songwriting side of things. Between John Doe and Exene Cervenka alone, there are at least 20 solo albums & projects since 1990. This tells me that they probably didn’t need to wait until they were in their mid 60’s to write a back-to-basics X album.
And that’s exactly what ALPHABETLAND is.
The title track is a super-strong opener with Exene’s lead vocals. This has a strangely instant familiarity about it, most likely because it adheres to the old school X blueprint and these musicians have been in my head for decades at this point. John Doe’s golden tonsils dominate the melodic punk swagger of FREE, with plenty of the patented dual vocal interplay X does so well. Production-wise, Rob Schnapf is at the helm (Elliot Smith, Guided By Voices, The Vines etc.) and this is arguably the best the band has ever sounded. There’s nothing fancy or ultra-modern here, just the capture of exceptional energy.
WATER & WINE is punkabilly with Billy Zoom on fire, blazing through an all too brief guitar solo and embellishing the track with dance-band sax and piano. STRANGE LIFE is a rockier diversion – Definitely not old-school X, this sounds more like the digestible side of the band that made commercial strides with the lopsided AIN”T LOVE GRAND in 1985. I GOTTA FEVER leans more towards 3rd-4th album territory, expanded outward from the frantic rock’n’roll punk roots into something more fluid and melodic. Like everything else on the album, it wastes little time serving its purpose before we’re onto whatever’s next.
The lead single for the album, DELTA 88 NIGHTMARE was originally just DELTA 88, an outtake from LOS ANGELES way back in 1980. This is sharp, sped-up rock’n’roll punk blast embodies everything that made the band unique, and I’m a little baffled as to why, on a debut that barely scratches 28 minutes, this 1-minute 38-second track was left off.
STAR CHAMBERED has that superb thin and choppy WILD GIFT era guitar and one of the album’s most confident tag-team lead vocals – Everything that kick-started my love affair with this band. ANGEL ON THE ROAD is another morsel of fast melodic punk, notable for an incredibly inventive and very non-Billy-Zoom guitar solo. Producer Rob Schnapf is credited with “additional guitar” and this leaves me wondering did the band sneak him an uncredited lead?
Very little on the album is over 3 minutes, except for the other X discography re-heat, CYRANO DE BERGER’S BACK, a song I’m not too fond of whether it’s the LOS ANGELES outtake from 1980, the 1987 alt-rock chugger from SEE HOW WE ARE, or this more faithful run-through of the original arrangement. X did some worthy reinvention of catalogue misfires on the UNCLOGGED acoustic live album, and that may have worked in this case, but as it stands, there’s little to be enthusiastic about.
As the penultimate bookend, GOODBYE YEAR, GOODBYE is a killer. This seems to have a spiritual and thematic symbiosis with WORLD’S A MESS, IT’S IN MY KISS from 1980…
“It’s been dirty, it’s been bad, oh so happy, awful sad, chocked so full for less than empty, my bank account is down and out and overdrawn, I could go on and on and on…”
…No Auld Lang Syne nonsense here… just a swift, sharp fuck off, and something that is presently very relevant… we might yet all be screaming this in celebration during the final seconds of 2020!
Finally, ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD lands the album onto the sonic palette of Exene’s early solo career, specifically OLD WIVE’S TALES. This is a sharp cynical valediction set to jazz piano with creepy guitar sounds courtesy of Doors guitarist Robby Krieger. I particularly like this as an ending, given that the roots of X are as much in poetry and creative writing as they are in punk rock…
“History is just one lost language after another, after another, and when they’re all taken together we still can’t decipher the past or decode the future, we’re just lost without a map. We are dust, it’s true, and to dust, we shall return, me and you, but it was fun while it lasted… All the time in the world turns out to be not that much.”
In terms of delivering a classic sounding X record into the world, this is absolutely on point. It’s 11 tracks in 27 Minutes, and that means no messing about. Everyone sounds utterly ageless and the spirit of the band going right back to its inception is intact.
If I have a reservation about the album, it’s that we know X to be a creative force that evolved significantly throughout its catalogue. ALPHABETLAND sounds energetic and enthusiastic, but there’s something under the surface suggesting that this is X slightly being an X covers band. If there’s a greater plan to swiftly follow it up, create a new run of albums like the first 4-5, and expand the sound again, then it makes sense. But if this is going to be all we get for several years then ALPHABETLAND might look like fan service in the rear-view mirror.
It just somehow feels like we should be 2 or 3 21st century X albums in at this point.
The yellow, red and green limited vinyl pressings sold out in the first 24 hours, and because of COVID-19 lockdown, the standard physical issue of the album won’t be available until later in the summer. In the meanwhile, you can stick with digital or preorder whatever physical loot lined up…