Monday, 10 February 2014

Siouxsie Sunday: 'Superstition' by Siouxsie and the Banshees

The year is 1991, and the Banshees get back together after taking an extended break to record a new album. It had been three years since 1988's brilliant Peepshow, which was the longest recording gap of their career so far. Meanwhile, Siouxsie and Budgie had worked together as The Creatures, recording another excellent LP Boomerang. The late 1980s had indeed been a creatively successful era for both groups, and Superstition saw them experimenting once again with new elements. This particular album, however, become probably their most polarising one - the new direction they were experimenting with, you see, was pop music.

Uh-oh, we're dealing with that dreaded moment when your cool and alternative favourite band does the unthinkable and goes pop. Sells out. When our favourite artists or groups release new music and it's not what we expect from them, we're often admittedly upset or at least not positively surprised. We've all been there. Nonetheless, sometimes we let our own initial reactions blur our judgement which is never a good thing. And now that I look back at Superstition - or 'the pink album', as the SATB fans tend to call it - it's by no means as lacking as many make it to be.

The lead single and album opener "Kiss Them For Me" (written as an ode to the 1950s celebrity icon Jayne Mansfield) for example is a magnificent, glorious pop single that combines Beatles orientalism with beaming pop appeal. It's easily one of their catchiest singles and became their biggest hit in the States to date, peaking at #23 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It's South Asian instrumentation featured tabla playing by Talvin Singh who can also be heard singing during the bridge. Fun fact: after working with the Banshees on the single and the following first Lollapalooza tour which they were headlining, Singh went on to collaborate with the likes of Björk and Madonna. A music video was shot, and it played with a lot of imagery associated with Mansfield (such as the heart-shaped pool and the pink champagne). It's also amazing to see her without so much makeup on - she's so beautiful in a more natural look! 

[Is it just me or does she look a bit like Monica from Friends in it?]

The final song on the album, "The Ghost In You" is an equally sublime moment, with stunning arrangements and tender vocal delivery. Lyrically it deals with the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the resulting massacre, with Siouxsie softly urging the people to not give up: "Hold the whirlwind, don't let it blow / Hope remains with the ghost in you". So, the record both begins and ends on a high note, but what remains in the middle?

With Superstition, the Banshees were working with a new producer Stephen Hague which inevitably changed the group's sound. His production style leaned heavily on computers, and the album was recorded digitally from start to finish. Sometimes this works really effectively: the darker numbers (where the group usually excelled at) "Drifter" and "Little Sister" are both captivating and succeed in bringing that breeze of traditional Banshee gloominess to the album. Their magical atmospheres even recall that of Peepshow, as do Siouxsie's remarkable vocals on them.

Then there's the airy new wave single "Shadowtime", one of the better uses of synthesizers on the album. It's exceptionally upbeat (for a Banshee track anyway) and makes you feel good, just like a pop tune should - and that's all it claims to be. "Silver Waterfalls" sees the return of Singh's tablas, and is another feel-good moment and a perfectly beautiful little pop song. It's also actually one of the few Budgie-penned lyrics the group had.

The record has a number of uptempo stompers that prove that just as much as the Banshees were going pop, they were going rock, too - hell, the powerhouse that is "Silly Thing" even had Jon Klein perform a screechy guitar solo that could almost be taken from a heavy metal song! "Cry" is a grower of a song that tells of the injustice of the world and how animal species are hunted to death one after another. "Fear (Of The Unknown)" is an unfortunately forgettable track but has some interesting lyrics, such as the part where Siouxsie ponders: "Do you ever have the strange sensation / when you're standing mighty tall / to jump from 17 floors and crash into freefall?" It was then remixed quite radically for a single release, resulting in a Deee-Lite meets Madonna kind of a dance number. Personally I prefer the original one, though I do like that dance-y piano riff. Funnily enough, it became their biggest hit on the U.S. Hot Dance Club Play chart, peaking at #6.

But no track is quite as forgettable as "Got To Get Up", one of the most pointless SATB tracks and also very likely the worst Siouxsie lyric out there. The whole message of an awakening or a self-empowerment goes undelivered when the track just screams 'filler'. I also don't get "Softly" - it's too bland and unexciting to stand out, and even in a enhanced version would sound more like it'd belong to The Creatures' Boomerang album than here. The Banshees were always a great B-side group, and especially during this era they had actually better B-sides than some of the album tracks. The beautiful back-to-back songs "Staring Back"/"Return" and the fierce "I Could Be Again" come to mind.

It's a shame Superstition is mostly noted for its flaws rather than its strengths. "Kiss Them For Me" is one of the groups most wonderful (or should I say... divoon?) singles, "Drifter" and "Little Sister" are just as typical classic Banshees tunes as anything they made during the late '80s and even the synthesized pop sound was just yet another experiment in their endless list of reinventions. It does have some missteps (the selection of song could've been stronger and they also could've experimented more with the South Asian exotica of "Kiss Them For Me" on other tracks as well) but it also has a lot of highlights. When analysing it, it can be hard to choose whether you listen to it as a lacking album in the Banshee canon or 'just' as a nice, accessible pop album. Then again, in my eyes Siouxsie and the Banshees were always a weird, avant-garde pop group to begin with - 'pop' is, after all, a rather broad umbrella term for a vast range of music as opposed to mere top 40 material. This is for sure their poppiest one out of the bunch but is it necessarily a bad thing? I don't think so. It might not be the strongest record they wrote but for me, Superstition is every bit as enjoyable of a Banshee album as any - they're actually quite pretty in pink!

4 / 5

Try at least: "Kiss Them For Me", "Drifter", "Little Sister", "The Ghost In You"

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