Hugh Cornwell – Totem & Taboo (Cadiz/Southbound) CD REVIEW

IT WAS HUGH Cornwell’s voice, by and large, that made the first decade of recorded work by the Stranglers so standout. While callow punks all around were screaming ineffectually like neutered chipmunks, Cornwell already sounded authoritative, his deep, flinty growl effortlessly taking control, a man amongst Muppets.
Later on, that growl turned to a croon, but Cornwell always retained an edge of menace, and a hint of darkness. Even at his ballad best, he was a no-nonsense figure who could give a shit, but only just.
Listen to those Cornwell-featured Stranglers albums now, and you wonder why the band has sunk below the radar. They still sound fresh, strong, and distinctive, mimicking no one and always claiming their own musical territory. And Cornwell’s post-Stranglers output has been rather good, as well. There are 15 solo albums since his first slice of pop greatness, Wolf (1988), and Totem & Taboo, produced by Steve Albini, is proof positive that he’s neither mellowed, nor a spent force.
Normally, I wouldn’t go for an album as musically orthodox and stripped-back as Totem & Taboo, but there’s something compelling about this short, 10-song collection. There are very few contributors, with Cornwell overdubbing most of the instruments, and the result is a sound that’s gritty, raw, and all about fundamentals. It’s the sort of album where you can really enjoy the crashing of the drums and the slashing of guitar chords, because these essential components are larger than life in the mix.
But it’s really all about voice and words, and what makes it so remarkable is that after all these years, Cornwell is still as unflinching, as honest as ever, and still telling it like it is without any decoration or attempt at tarting it up. And while most singers feel the need to drool on about feelings and broken hearts and things that can’t be mended, Cornwell writes accounts of celebrity parties, retail therapy, tabloid media, and uh… women.
There’s one called ‘God Is A Woman’, which sounds at first like a tribute to the finer sex, and most likely is, with the proviso that Cornwell apparently intended it as a modern-day revisiting of ‘Peaches’ which, while a great song, probably put the feminist cause back about a decade. Then there’s ‘The Face’, about being in the presence of that icon of superficiality, Madonna. Sample lyric: “In another hour I got bored/Left her sitting on her throne.”
There’s nothing ornate here, and no surging organ underpinning the sound, and although there are several guitar solos, they’re paragons of discipline and brevity. The only really high-falutin’ thing is the nine-minute piece, ‘In The Dead Of The Night’, that ends the album.
In a world or egotistic over-achieving and slack-arse under-achieving, Hugh Cornwell knows how to play it just right, and Totem & Taboo is a master class in sticking to your guns and doing what you do do well. GARY STEEL
Music = 3.5/5
Sound = 4/5

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