Music Reviews

Hugh Cornwell – Totem and Taboo

Incredibly, it’s been 22 years since Hugh Cornwell left The Stranglers. With his former band he released 10 studio albums in 14 years, with Totem and Taboo he is releasing his ninth solo album.

Hugh has always been an intellectual, often ignored in his punk roots, and has an urbanity and eccentricity about him akin to David Byrne, so it’s no surprise that Totem and Taboo is a reference to a collection of essays by Sigmund Freud. Cornwell appears to be saying that he walks a different walk, that he sees things differently, that what he enjoys we would revile at. With such a strong claim one might expect the music to be difficult and experimental, but the sound is classic guitar, bass and drums. It has the sound of a 60s band; the bass is, at times, as rumbling as anything JJ Burnel ever put down between grooves and Hugh’s guitar work has always been interesting and individual.  In keeping with the 60s sound, ‘Stuck in Daily Mail Land’ sounds like a Ray Davies number and ‘God is a Woman’ has a bass line straight from Cream’s ‘Badge’.

Cornwell’s song writing has often revolved around well known phrases and this album is no different, with song titles like: ‘I Want One of Those’, ‘Bad Vibrations’, ‘Love Me Slender’ and ‘In the Dead of the Night’. But where once his lyrics were mysterious and open to interpretation, now they all too often banal; take this from The Face: “Amongst the faithful there was Paul/he shook my hand in the hall”.

There are great songs on here, though. ‘I Want One Of Those’ and ‘Stuck in Daily Mail Land’ may be attacking easy targets, but they are great numbers. Similarly, ‘Bad Vibrations’ and ‘A Street Called Carroll’ are great little rockers.

In ‘Gods, Gays and Guns’ things get a little odd as Cornwell implies that all of European history revolves around the trinity of the title. With ‘God is a Woman’ I wonder if Cornwell is finally burying the charge of sexism that always lingered around The Stranglers like the smell of rohypnol, but this is followed by ‘Love Me Slender’.

I always defended The Stranglers against charges of sexism (it was reportage, it was tongue-in-cheek) but can’t defend ‘Love Me Slender’. As the title suggests it is a song about how slim girls are more attractive than larger girls: “I like the way you look/the diet that you took” and “you really do look great/now you’ve lost that extra weight” and “Rubens was a fool/to think he held the jewel/when tubby was the rule”.

The fascistic nature of the beauty media does not need any more promotion, especially from somebody who is admired by so many.

Thankfully, the album ends on a high note. ‘In the Dead of Night’ is easily the best track on Totem and Taboo. It’s 10 minutes of steamy music noir that prowls the sidewalks of a rain drenched city nitescape. It is the memories that haunt us, the wistfulness, the melancholy, the longing in the dead of the night. I think it’s the best thing he’s written since ‘Lay Back On Me Pal’ and ‘The Big Sleep’ (both from 2000s Hi Fi).

This is a good album. But, maybe because I’m a long time fan, I want something more. The catalyst for Cornwell leaving The Stranglers was watching Devon Malcolm bat with abandon in a Test Match and I wonder if Cornwell needs another epiphany to discover how far he can really take his music.

Totem and Taboo was recorded at Electrical Audio, Chicago, and produced by Steve Albini. It is available through Pledge Music. The official release date will be in September.

Hugh Cornwell: Stuck in Daily Mail Land on YouTube:


This article first appeared on Louder Than War:


2 thoughts on “Hugh Cornwell – Totem and Taboo”

  1. Have to agree with you, but The Stranglers, even at their worst were always an interesting band and every album, even after Feline, had one or two great tracks.

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