Bobby Conn: Recovery (Tapete Records)

Steeped in debauchery yet a highly moral critic of contemporary America; sardonic as hell but sweetly sincere; a musical outsider with a penchant for stadium dynamics... Bobby Conn is a fascinating bundle of contradictions

Released Mar 20th, 2020 via Tapete / By Ben Wood
Bobby Conn: Recovery (Tapete Records) America has always needed provocateurs like Bobby Conn to prod its soft, sick underbelly. The Chicago maverick, born Jeffrey Stafford, has written eight wildly eclectic albums featuring an idiosyncratic mish-mash of styles and ideas.

Conn has been a soul man, a stadium rocker, a noise merchant and a balladeer... often in the space of the same song. He has inhabited the personas of Antichrist, libertine, social satirist, nihilist and philosopher. And in a more just world, his knack for massive stadium anthems would see him supplant Bono et al. as an unlikely rock God.

Recovery is Conn's first album since 2012. While there are occasional callbacks to his scuzzier past, the record sees the now happily married 50-something father and his highly proficient long-term band double down on one of his favourite subjects - the greed, hypocrisy and philistinism of America's ruling political and corporate class. No shortage of material there...!

Largely instrumental opener Recovery would sit well on a soundtrack by Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield. It portrays a world where people must rely on 'self-care', as caring for others is politically unfashionable.

Disposable Future opens with a vicious parody of a pompous Big Tech ad, before seguing into the album's dominant sound - glossy and 80s-tinged with funky and gothy undertones. Conn's malleable vocals often slide into affected Bowieisms, suitable for songs such as Good Old Days, which skewers 80s nostalgia ('cruel and frightened... beaten and battered in the good old days'); and Disaster, which quotes Bowie's post-Apocalyptic Diamond Dogs album.

Most songs here combine hooky, even cheesy, accessibility with odd textures and abrupt changes of tone. Musically, closer Always Already swerves from ominous techno-fear to the kind of massed singalong that could close a West End musical. It is unlikely, however, that said musical would be discussing the drawbacks to French post-Structuralist philosophy and the inherent meaninglessness of existence!

Occasionally there are moments that remind us of Conn's previous preoccupations. Bijou is a libertarian, sex-positive paean to a now-shut gay porn cinema; while another ruefully admits that drugs are A Young Man's Game.

This is a funny old album. Conn is a very clever man, with a hell of a lot to say and a gift for writing memorable melodies and on-the-money lyrics. He has a lot of charisma, and attitude to burn. However, his fondness for stadium gloss and weapons-grade irony has a somewhat distancing effect. This brings us to the question he - and most alt.rock - has been wrestling with for decades. Can post-punk alternative culture - mired as it is in hip, self-distancing irony - ever achieve a strong emotional effect, or is it fated to come across as smart-arse and insincere? (aka 'the Pavement conundrum').

Recovery tries to have its cake and eat it. It uses irony and satire, and the musical styles co-opted to sell aspirational lifestyles, to critique the whole shebang. Like Andrew WK (remember him?) and a host of smart indie types over the years, Conn strikes rock messiah poses but hasn't crossed over to a mainstream audience. Maybe only Ziggy- era Bowie has ever successfully squared this particular circle.

However, the fact that Conn has us asking these questions means he has succeeded in both entertaining us and making us think. Rage on, sir... 7/10