The notion that the election of Donald Trump and the reality of Brexit was going to inspire a lot of great punk rock, as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher did in the '80s, hasn't worked out quite the way some people hoped. But it has encouraged a few veteran artists to tighten their thematic focus, and that seems to be the case with Gang of Four. 2015's What Happens Next -- which debuted the "Gang of One" lineup with guitarist Andy Gill as the only member left from the band's glory days of the '80s -- was a relatively refined and toothless work that dealt with the personal more than the political. But that's certainly not the case with 2019's Happy Now; this music is more deeply rooted in electronics than Gang of Four's best work, but here the surfaces are rougher and cut noticeably deeper, with the grooves suitable for dancing but jagged in their execution. Gill's guitar work is very much in his classic style, full of sharp shards of sound and dense clouds of feedback, and it gives Happy Now an aggressive and muscular punch, even if the guitars are sometimes deeper in the mix than they need to be.
Gang of Four have always been more comfortable with thoughtful analysis than sloganeering, and the politics of Happy Now offer no comforting singalongs for your next protest gathering. But Trump's voice gets sampled in "Alpha Male," which clearly concerns itself with some of his myriad scandals, and "Ivanka: My Name's on It" ponders the nature of complicity as it relates to the President and his family. Paranoia in an uncertain time lurks beneath the surface in "Change the Locks," the declining value of truth is the theme of "I'm a Liar" and "White Lies," and the divide between the have and have nots gets ugly in "Toreador." John "Gaoler" Sterry's efforts to sound like original Gang of Four singer Jon King sometimes backfire on him, but he fits better here than he did on What Happens Next, and bassist Thomas McNeice and percussionist Tobias Humble have learned how to generate the funky but ominous bottom line this music needs. Just how much global politics had to do with the making of Happy Now is open to debate, but this music has a clear point of view and a sense of purpose that's stronger than anything Gang of Four has offered listeners in quite some time. Saying Happy Now is the best album to bear the Gang of Four banner since 1995's Shrinkwrapped may sound like a dubious compliment, given how tepid much of their output has been, but this is taut, effective music that honors Gang of Four's heritage but succeeds on its own terms. Global crisis is good for something after all.