Books & Culture

A review of “Alphabetland” by X (Fat Possum Records, $13 CD, $20 vinyl)

X: The Thrilling Return of Free-Thinking Punk

X is back, and not a minute too soon.

This is going to be a review of Alphabetland,” the fantastic new album by the band X. A legendary punk rock band that formed in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, the band includes vocalist Exene Cervenka, vocalist-bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D. J. Bonebrake (yes, that’s his real name).

The band released seven studio albums from 1980 to 1993. The best, in my view, is 1983’s “More Fun in the New World.” Inactive for much of the 1990s, X reunited in the early 2000s and have been touring more or less ever since. Their influences include Gene Vincent, surf rock, the Beat poets, John Steinbeck, the Ramones, the city of Los Angeles, and postwar hardboiled crime fiction.

But before getting to the review proper, I’d like to offer a quote from “nice guy, punk legend” guitarist Zoom. In a 2004 interview with Mark Prindle, here’s how Zoom described his political outlook:

I am not a Republican; I am a conservative. The Republican Party is a political party, and I think all politicians are basically full of crap. However, I lean towards conservative values because basically what I want is a government that provides national defense so that we are free to do what we want within our borders, and that keeps criminals off the streets so we’re free to do what we want in our homes, and that provides a fire department to help fight a fire if my house is burning down. And basically, other than that, I kinda want ’em to stay out of my life. I’m a big fan of things like freedom and liberty, and I see those as being conservative values, and I see liberals as wanting to have bigger government that sticks their nose in everybody’s business and takes away our freedoms.

The point of highlighting Zoom’s comments from 16 years ago isn’t to paint X as some kind of right-wing group. They’re not.

Exene generated some controversy in 2017 for apparently praising President Trump, but read what she said closely and the old language of pro-labor populism comes through loud and clear. “It was better before they voted for what’s-his-name,” Cervenka and Doe sing in “The New World,” a lyric that was interpreted in the early 1980s as a shot at Ronald Reagan. (At a December show, Exene said of the song, “The lyrics will be as true in 60 years as they were when they were written.”)

No, the point of quoting Zoom is to highlight that the members of X are four literate, intelligent, and philosophical people who have read books and observed culture; they believe in free expression and ground it in thought and experience. Punk pioneers, the band is a reminder that at its best, punk was not just rage and rebellion and humor, but rage and rebellion and humor (and fun) bursting forth from an intelligent mind.

Here’s Exene on “All the Time in the World,” the spoken-word final track on “Alphabetland” the looks back from adulthood:

We have all the time in the world

Until the limitless possibilities of youthful infinity turn into mortality

But that’s after a long, fun struggle of watching everyone

Not me and not you

Suddenly go pale

Some failed to live up to life

Some trailed behind their own comet tails

Some wailed and cried out to God to no avail

And some got impaled by speeding metal

And infected needles

These are not the lyrics of a dope. The same could be said for most of the best records from the punk and post-punk era in which X thrived.

Leftist agitators, the Clash’s 1979 masterpiece “London Calling” sounds like a novel, and the title of the Smith’s 1986 classic “The Queen is Dead” is based on the novel “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” (Morrissey, the Smith’s lead singer, is a nationalist who has been all but canceled in the UK for his politically incorrect views.)

The Communist Gang of Four—“the postgraduate Clash”—named a song after a line from Joseph Conrad. Elvis Costello’s song “Beyond Belief” could almost pass for a T.S. Eliot poem. Listening to the Dead Kennedys in the early 1980s was like taking a bumper-car ride with your brilliant anarchist professor.

It wasn’t all leftism, either: Siouxsie and the Banshees’ brilliant lament “Rhapsody” was written for Stravinsky, a victim of Stalin’s insane malice. In fact, a basic credo of punk was distrust of hippies and left-liberal utopianism.

Understanding that history is key to understanding what makes X so great. Sonically, “Alphabetland” has end-to-end moments of pure, exuberant rock and roll fun. Zoom’s guitar riffs soar and growl, Bonebrake’s drumming is driving and flawless, and Exene and John Doe’s dovetailing vocals have never sounded better.

Lyrically it’s like the coolest English literature seminar you ever attended. The opener in “Alphabetland” is about the god Mercury: “Mercury you will skate on solver blades / Figure eights on a frozen lake.” “Goodbye Year, Goodbye” was inspired by James Leo Herlihy’s Midnight Cowboy, with the lyrics “brother and sister pretend to be lovers,” a reference to an Andy Warhol party.

“Water and Wine” is a perfectly timed commentary on the new coronavirus reality in America.

The divine that defines us

The evil that divides us

There’s a heaven and a hell

And there’s an ”oh well”

Who gets passed to the head of the line?

Who gets water and who gets wine?

That seems somber and didactic, but the surf-rock vibe will get people on the dance floor and a backing sax adds extra buoyancy.

Like a lot of punk bands of their generation, X are as much fun as they are cutting. “I Gotta Fever” is adrenalized L.A. noir, and “Cyrano deBerger’s Back” (which Doe wrote 40 years ago) is a funky celebration of a man who is an articulate wingman for a strong silent type: “I’m gonna listen carefully / To hear what your Roxanne is gonna say / Though I love her 20 times more / I never say.”

Smart, sexy, fun, and trenchant, “Alphabetland” is a triumph. X is back, and not a minute too soon.