Skunk Anansie found considerable success in their native England and throughout Europe in the late ’90s, with three albums that cracked the top 10 and went gold or platinum in multiple countries. Over there, the critical response to the new Black Traffic (100%), the band’s second record after a decade-plus hiatus, falls into two camps. Those who remember Skunk Anansie’s heyday, when the definition of Britpop was flexible enough to include a hard-rock band fronted by a queer black woman, tend to think Skin and her mates have mellowed. Younger listeners, hearing Skin’s strident vocals soaring over metallic guitars, muscular drums and throbbing bass, wonder what these 40-somethings have to be so angry about.
They’re both right, in their own ways. The soulful, string-kissed “I Hope You Get to Meet Your Hero” and “Drowning” show Skin’s softer side, but that vulnerability does nothing to dim the power of her voice. Meanwhile, in songs like “I Believed in You” and “Sticky Fingers in Your Honey,” she seethes with disgust at political leaders and bankers. In that respect, Skunk Anansie is as fired up as ever.
If they’re known at all in the U.S., where their chart impact has been nil, it’s for “Selling Jesus,” the first track on their first album, 1995’s Paranoid and Sunburnt. “They want your soul and your money, your blood and your votes,” Skin howls over a choppy riff and pounding drums. Though it got airplay on MTV and the opening spot on the Strange Days soundtrack, the candid portrait of religious repression somehow failed to charm Clinton-era America. The country clearly wasn’t ready for the rest of the record, either; not the funk-metal smackdown “Intellectualize My Blackness” and not the stop-and-start headbanger “It Takes Blood & Guts to Be This Cool But I’m Still Just a Cliché.” Not even the love-battered “Weak” — which Rod Stewart later watered down for a collection of Britpop covers that was then his lowest charting album in the U.S. in 28 years. That might suggest America was just baffled by Britpop in general. But in Skunk Anansie’s case, maybe it’s not that we don’t get what Skin’s saying. Maybe it’s that we’d rather not.