The Pop Group reunion gigs seem to have revitalised Mark Stewart. Rather than basking in the overdue glory accorded his old group, Stewart was straight back in the studio recording his first solo album for four years. The Politics of Envy came out last March, featuring guest spots from many of his punk era peers – Keith Levene, Gina Birch, Tessa Pollitt, Richard H Kirk, Youth etc. – and most rewardingly, their spiritual heirs from Factory Floor. The album was great – claustrophobic, dense and paranoid in the tradition of Stewart’s finest work, but with a lightness of touch that suggested that Stewart had actually learned to have fun with his music.Some copies of the album came with a bonus CD of ‘experimental’ mixes of four of the songs… a hint perhaps at Stewart’s unease with having ‘definitive’ versions of his songs. A few months on and we now have The Exorcism of Envy – a full dub album of tracks from the album. The art of the dub album is something of a lost skill, having been devalued by numerous cash-ins in the early ’80s by third-rate post-punk outfits anxious to maximise their sales potential. Not so with Stewart – The Pop Group’s classic début album Y being basically a dub of their live set of the time.
It seems superfluous for Stewart to release dub versions of his records – the originals are all so saturated by the technique as to make the exercise questionable. Any doubts however are soon blasted away by The Exorcism of Envy, whose eleven reworkings all pretty much eclipse the originals. The song order is reshuffled and opener “Babycino”‘s wild burblings and abrupt interjections instantly subvert the original (“Baby Bourgeois”)’s more standard disco groove and send the listener careering off into space. Versions of the more song-like tracks tend to be highlights, with the dubs of both “Gustav Says” and Bowie‘s “Letter to Hermione” particularly benefiting from having their structure ripped apart, the latter featuring an added PiL bass line (courtesy of Keith Levene?) that renders it barely recognisable as the same song. Elsewhere, the Lee Perry collaboration “Gang Wars” is reborn as the completely unhinged noise fest “Mirror Wars,” providing perhaps the album’s highlight with contributions from Tessa Pollitt, Gina Birch and Keith Levene all thrown into the Upsetter‘s mincer to emerge as a Burroughs cut-up of a whirlpool.In some ways, the three Factory Floor collaborations are the least startling, but only because the originals left so little room for improvement. “Method to the Madness Dub” however does have a lot of fun with stereo panning. The album ends with original opener “Vanity Kills,” here retitled “Killswitch,” which starts off as a more restrained version, sampling Satie‘s Gymnopédie No 1 before building up tension with the aid of Richard Hell and Kenneth Anger (on Theremin!). As with much of The Exorcism of Envy, the song gains a greater dynamic power from the treatment here.
Far from being superfluous, The Exorcism of Envy turns out to be one of the finest records of the year – good though The Politics of Envy undoubtedly was, the freedom its release gave Stewart to play around with the material has actually resulted in an even better record, and one of the high points of his career.