You can hear the maturity and conviction of veteran popcraft that still has something left to say after a long silence.
How does a pop band age gracefully? Liverpudlian new wave stalwarts China Crisis showed everybody how it’s done in 2015, when they released their first album of new material in over 20 years. With a contemplative tone that suited its title, Autumn in the Neighborhood proved that the band’s gift for the hook was completely intact.
Keyboardist Gary Daly and guitarist Eddie Lundon have been the only constants throughout the band’s now 40-year existence. While activity dropped off after their 1994 album Warped by Success, perhaps the slickest white-soul of their career, they never completely called it quits, continuing to tour even when they stopped releasing new material. Autumn was a crowdfunded effort, and with most of the songwriting credits going to Daly, it sounds like they never stopped creating.
China Crisis had an airy sound from their 1982 debut, Difficult Shapes & Passive Rhythms and the synthesized horn section of that album’s “No More Blue Horizons” echoes across the decades to reunion opener “Smile.” A baroque synth fanfare launches a blue-eyed pop soul number with a self-effacing hello: “Smile and shake the hand of the good for nothing.” The melodic shifts and production (by Carl Brown and Brian McNeill) ring out like it was 30 years ago. “Down Here on Earth” continues the kind of lighter-than-air feel, which suits the excited if disoriented song of an angel overwhelmed by the physical and emotional struggle of taking human form: “I don’t know how it works/ Down here on Earth.”
The L. A. guitar sound (a remnant of their days produced by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker) points to a kind of new wave yacht rock, but with a soulfulness that comes out of the soul jazz-inflected ‘80s pop of Style Council or Everything But The Girl. But it’s no use pigeonholing a Liverpool band. As Scouse Pop, the recent survey of the city’s scene, argued, the town that gave birth to the Beatles was never at a loss for homegrown music, but the bands that emerged from the failing industrial town were so determined not to sound like any other bands that there was no distinct regional sound. So “Because My Heart” has country guitar, the introspective “Bernard” has girl-group background singers and the nearly wordless “Tell Tale Signs” is one of a number of tracks that features pedal steel guitar. All these timbres are used to vary the band’s sound yet are like grace notes that gently amplify a coherent vision, tell tales signs of an unassuming mastery.
Still, whatever they undertake, there’s a smooth confidence that unifies the material. It takes some chutzpah for new wave veterans to pull off a strong ballad on their reunion album, but that’s the modest power of Daly’s melodies: the achingly gorgeous keyboard hook of “Joy and the Spark”—glassy, ethereal and filled in by synthesized bagpipes, of all things—conveys a youthful exuberance and at the same time the wisdom of restraint that comes from decades of experience.
The bitterly romantic “Fool,” Lundon’s only solo writing credit on the album, is the kind of sophisti-pop that should have been a minor MTV hit in the ‘80s, and sure, there is an element of nostalgia involved. But if this sounds like a band of its time, 20 or 30 years ago, you can also hear the maturity and conviction of veteran popcraft that still has something left to say after a long silence. Even if you’re just discovering China Crisis, the melodic and sonic pleasures of Autumn in the Neighborhood promises joy and a wistful spark of new music. With seemingly every other band in pop history delivering a reunion album, it’s a good idea to be skeptical. But any cynicism will melt away at their deceptively laid-back melodies.