In a long-awaited, messy return, Liam Howlett kicks up just enough of a storm to cover up the lack of any really new ideas...
Undeniably, ‘Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’, used in the way intended – slapped into a CD player, volume turned up to a point where Scottish crofters would get complaints from their neighbours, and let rip – is a marvellous, thrusting beast. Unfortunately, it’s at volumes like this your brain starts to liquefy and wearing mirrored sunglasses, making jokes about Rohypnol and developing a comedy persona for posting on Popbitch also seem like excellent ideas. Turn the volume down just a little, listen closer, and you can hear a band stumbling to define themselves.
That they’d ever need a comeback would have been unthinkable at the time of the [a]Prodigy[/a]’s last album ‘The Fat Of The Land’, way back in 1997. Then they were scaring parents on ‘Top Of The Pops’, headlining Glastonbury and delighting the hipsters with big-enough beats and the tabloids with stage-managed outrages; Keith Flint’s hair and piercings at last providing dance music with a visual image to challenge Liam Gallagher’s sneer. But they managed to blow it in a manner even the England football team would find amazing, collapsing in a pile of self-parody and botched performances. The 2002 single ‘Baby’s Got A Temper’ was a poorly-received run-through of a sound which had become so overweight and clichéd that it led Liam Howlett to trash the first draft of this album and rebuild it from scratch. Fans of Keith will have to wait for the next Flint album. Trouble is, although forced to move on, Howlett had nowhere particular to go, and so much of this album sees him squatting on the floors of other acts.
So, you get ‘Exterminator’-era Primal Scream worked over into ‘Spitfire’, a pastiche of early [a]Beastie Boys[/a] on ‘Girls’, and even the back-to-square-one of sounding like the [a]Prodigy[/a] on ‘Get Up Get Off’ – not entirely a bad thing, as it gives something for rapper Twista to really chew down on. The lowest point is guest vocalist Juliette Lewis’ contribution,
the frankly grating ‘Hotride’, where the [a]Prodigy[/a] attempt to turn up the sinister knob with a cover of Jimmy Webb’s easy-listening classic’Up, Up And Away’, as they did with their exceptional version of ‘Ghost Town’ on the NME ‘One Love’ compilation. It’s seemingly an attempt to create a punk answer to [a]Orb[/a]’s ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ but the sound of Lewis coming across like a New York new waver (imagine a French & Saunders skit about Bjork) just reminds you of why actors should never be allowed to sing. Not all the dressing
in other people’s clothes fails, though: ‘Wake Up Call’ straps Trent Reznor to a disco glitterball and slaps the dirty, groovy vibe on the face until it begs it to stop.
It’s clear other ideas haven’t quite been given a chance to form – doubtless the fear was that allowing tune-foetuses like ‘Shot Down’ the time to be worked up into something memorable would have held back the album just a little too long. It’s not the worst piece of music Liam Gallagher’s sung on, by a long chalk, but it’s so basic a piece of work it makes an Argos sideboard look showy. Likewise, ‘Memphis Bells’ would be a triumph for a kid in a bedroom knocking up a theme for ‘Top Of The Pops’on their PC, but knowing it took the combined might of the [a]Prodigy[/a] [I]and[/I] [a]Prodigy[/a] to create it suggests a rush to get things finished before the world forgot them.
There are points where ‘Always Outnumbered…’ outshines the back catalogue, and they’re so unlike the typical [a]Prodigy[/a] sound they could fool a mother. ‘Phoenix’ is a bit of a cheat, really – Howlett insists it’s a bootleg mash-up, but it’s driven so much by Shocking Blue’s ‘Love Buzz’ samples that it would be more honest to call it a remix. Boy, though, what a remix. The reconstruction of ‘Thriller”s bassline into ‘The Way It Is’ takes the painfully over-familiar and rewires, recolours and reshoots it into something as deliciously unsettling as a Michael Jackson rap sheet.
The real gem, though, is ‘Medusa’s Path’: a track so gentle and lovingly-constructed, pulling the delicate Iranian sound of Gholam Hossein into a nourishing electronic Brit-dance context, it’s hard to imagine that anyone involved had even heard ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, much less that they sprang from the same brainstem.
Howlett’s desperation to claim some new territory for the band to call their own is obvious, and even the tracks that don’t amount to much in terms of musical depth are approached at nothing less than full pelt. But this collection doesn’t amount to anything more than house-hunting. There’s no real indication that Liam’s got any idea where the [a]Prodigy[/a] are heading in the long term, but turning the volume up is a great way of buying some time.
Simon Hayes Budgen