On the Scots trio’s sixth studio album, the same infectious bounce and sly wit is in evidence as it was back in 1996
Pop music is synonymous with youth, but nobody can stop time. The public is generally happy to see their favourite artists slip into middle age so long as they can still turn out a tune, content to forego low hairlines and narrow waists if the records and reformations keep coming, and everyone just pretends that jumping over the drum riser or busting out a slutdrop was never a big deal in the first place.
But when an act celebrates their juvenility from the outset, aging becomes a harsher curse. Musical Youth might turn in a decent festival set, but you’ll still feel a cognitive dissonance you won’t get with UB40, and anyone who’s encountered The Nashville Teens on the nostalgia trail can only find their senescence risible. Sonic Youth were perhaps ironic enough to carry the name off, but seeing their craggy, lined faces in their final years as a band still made the name a bit silly. And Neil Young is just taking the piss.
Bis have managed to walk that tightrope rather nicely. Yes, they may not all have been old enough to buy a pint when they first appeared on Top Of The Pops – the first unsigned act ever to do so, an achievement which puts them into both the record books and the roster of classic pub quiz questions – but, despite the odd lyric about sweetshops or Teen-C power, their feeling of youthful effusiveness came more from their fierce independence and love of euphoric pop music than any post-adolescent energy. And this has not changed on their sixth studio album, the same infectious bounce and sly wit is in evidence as it was back in 1996; they just go easier on the hairclips nowadays.
Some of the lyrics do reflect a more middle-aged mindset, where mortgages and school runs might take the place of rollerblades and school discos. Headaches and Stress is not a pair of titles one would have found on a ’90s Bis album, after all. Even when the themes are somewhat more universal, the band reveal that they’re in their 40s: lead single Lucky Night is a grinning swipe at men who co-opt feminism as an item in their chat-up arsenal (“Patriarchy is a bad scene/ Baby, I’m the vaccine”), but it’s hard to imagine any bar-room lothario under 35 asking for someone’s email address.
The music still packs a sherbety punch, though, regardless of the topics covered, embellishing the fizzy, buzzing indie-pop of old with some sonic references which actually predate the band’s first recordings by a few years. Stress is an indie anthem with Walken-tickling levels of cowbell, but also has a vintage rave breakdown, and some perky backing vocals from Manda Rin that sound pleasingly like Betty Boo. (I Got My) Independence – a track title to sum up the Bis ethos in every decade – starts with some pounding Italo house piano, before morphing into an Express Yourself-era Madonna tune via some crisp 909 snare.
Lucky Night’s package holiday party sound is like something from the second-tier of Stock, Aitken & Waterman’s roster – think Sonia or The Reynolds Girls – and We Do Structures might have a name like an ancient po-faced Gary Numan B-side, but its winking hi-NRG rhythm has more in common with half-forgotten hedonists London Boys. There’s even a track entitled The Lookback, pledging that “we do the lookback to see where we’ve come from”, in case there was any doubt (and, for the record, the lush synth pads this time nod towards the Madonna of Vogue, with a hint of The Beloved’s melancholy 3am wistfulness).
The sounds of 1989 are big business currently, and a band like the superb Confidence Man can take some vintage chart pop and some juicy Chicago house basslines to create a night at the Platonic NYC gay club of your dreams, but on Systems Music For Home Defence, Bis bring the same pleasures down to earth. Instead of big budget fantasies the album sounds more like people playing along to favourite pop tunes through fuzzy amps and singing with equal zest and wonky pitching into a marker-pen microphone. And if that doesn’t sound like fun to you, you’re probably too old.