Maffia / Mark Stewart

Learning to Cope with Cowardice

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When post-punk agitators the Pop Group disbanded in 1980, Mark Stewart briefly collaborated with the New Age Steppers and, the following year, embarked on his first solo project with producer Adrian Sherwood and several Steppers personnel. While Learning to Cope with Cowardice was no less confrontational than some of the Pop Group's work, it left behind the harsh, frenetic avant-funk of the Bristol band to foray into more experimental, dub-oriented territory. The standout track is the cut-up version of "Jerusalem," the English hymn (using William Blake's visionary words) that has come to stand almost as an unofficial national anthem. Stewart's "Jerusalem" embodies the multiple sonic facets of this album, juxtaposing jarring electronics, hectoring vocals, and heavy beats with more expansive layers of melody. Here, Stewart mixes his own strident declamation of Blake's verses with samples of a traditional arrangement of the hymn and with echo-heavy dub textures in such a way as to craft a complex meditation on issues of race, class, and tradition in Thatcher-ite Britain. Ironically, although Stewart doesn't use his own words, this ranks among his most powerful political statements. Elsewhere, Stewart sees democracy eroded by the encroachment of the State in league with corporate forces. The soundtrack to that vision is rendered appropriately dissonant, fragmented, and menacing in the chaotic, scratched, cut-up sound of "Blessed Are Those Who Struggle" and the austere metallic distortion of "None Dare Call It Conspiracy." Stewart's less challenging side can be heard on the title track, with its basic hip-hop rhythms, as well as numbers like "The Paranoia of Power" and sections of "Liberty City," which are built on smooth reggae grooves with his tortured singing offset by melodic female vocals. 1985's follow-up, As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade, would further explore the more experimental dimension of Stewart's sound.

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