As some active music icons age, they often move away from the musical styles and lyrical causes that propelled them to public consciousness. They expand to new sounds or find new grounds, and they may bear little resemblance to their old selves.
While such an evolution may be understandable, it’s sometimes disappointing. While not everyone has to be Billy Bragg to maintain some degree of consistency in musical philosophy, it’s nice to see a sensible evolution in a musical career — rather than, say, searching for something new at age 50 to new discernible musical benefit.
Enter Hugh Cornwell, a punk icon who remains completely recognizable because he seems largely to be the same man he was at the beginning of his career but perhaps more mellow. He may be a case of a young punk rocker with a satiric bite but often soft sentimentalities, who becomes an older punk rocker with a no less satiric bite and more pronounced sentimentalities. In an appearance backstage at the Black Cat last Thursday, Dec. 5, Cornwell played a solid set drawn from this new album, Totem & Taboo, as well as a number of selections from his old band The Stranglers.
As much as I appreciated the new material, the highlights of the show were in the older, familiar songs. Totem & Taboo explores themes consistently of interest to Cornwell throughout his career — including the fairer sex as well as trustworthiness — but also often embraces the theme of freedom of expression. He always was a thinker even when he was a rocker. It’s not every musician that has a degree in biochemistry, after all!
After opening with the title track of the new album, Cornwell quickly moved into The Stranglers’ “Nice N Sleazy” and continued to hit one of The Stranglers songs roughly for every other number. The highlight of the show, in my opinion, was his performance of “Always the Sun” toward the end of the main set. I find this Cornwell standard to be very uplifting not only for its resplendent guitar but its uplifting chorus, which shines through verses that recall various disappointments. Cornwell hit the mark on that song, and you could close your eyes and instantly be transported to a happier moment — indeed, in the sun — when hearing him play it live.
Cornwell built up to that transcendental moment with a set of songs that included “Golden Brown” and “Skin Deep” — two other well-regarded songs from his days in The Stranglers, dealing with drugs and superficial people respectively. Both songs immediately put you at ease with strong but relaxed guitar and Cornwell’s distinctive voice, which has aged but lost none of its vigor whether he’s tossing barbs or soothing souls. It’s wholly appropriate that he closed out the encore with The Stranglers’ “No More Heroes,” a punk rock lament of how little things may have changed despite the struggles of some idealists.
Well, I find it quite reassuring how little has changed with Mr. Cornwell, who delivered quite a satisfying performance!