New Statesman OCTOBER 30, 2008 - by Daniel Trilling


Grace Jones: Hurricane - the charismatic Jamaican-American singer's first album for nineteen years.

Here's a question that has no doubt been nagging Alistair Darling for weeks: what effect will the unfurling recession have on pop music? Fortunately, a US academic has been pursuing that very line of inquiry. Terry Pettijohn, assistant professor of psychology at Coastal Carolina University, told the International Herald Tribune recently that, during an economic downturn, people are likely to choose slower, more thoughtful music, which "makes us feel more comfortable in threatening times".

If you bear Pettijohn's argument in mind, the return of Grace Jones, a flamboyant purveyor of slick, image-conscious 1980s electro-pop, seems destined to fail. But, in fact, Jones nails the zeitgeist to the wall with Corporate Cannibal, the first single from Hurricane, her first album in nineteen years. "Pleased to meet you," she snarls in a voice dripping with venom, over a murky, distorted backdrop. "Pleased to have you on my plate."

These days, Jones's fame precedes her musical reputation. Despite a string of influential hits such as Slave To The Rhythm and Pull Up To The Bumper, the one thing most people in this country seem to remember about her is that she stood up during an ITV chat show in 1980 and slapped the host, Russell Harty, across the face. This past June, she announced her return to pop with a performance at the Meltdown festival in London, curated this year by Massive Attack. Wearing a range of outlandish Philip Treacy-designed headgear, she babbled, growled and gurned her way through a mix of material old and new. Jones may have turned sixty this year, but she showed no sign of having mellowed with age. "I could put you down," she told one stage invader who got a little too close for comfort.

Expectations have been high for Hurricane, particularly as Jones has managed to call in a few heavyweights to carry out production duties, among them Brian Eno, Tricky and the reggae duo Sly and Robbie. Except on Corporate Cannibal, however, her charisma is in short supply. The opening track, This Is, begins menacingly with the lyric "This is my voice / My weapon of choice" intoned over a throbbing electro rhythm, but elsewhere the album focuses on more intimate concerns, looking back to Jones's strict religious upbringing in 1950s Jamaica (her father was a preacher).

Williams Blood is the stand-out track, beginning like a Bond theme, all swirling strings and high-pitched piano notes, before pitching into an uplifting, gospel-tinged pop song. The "Williams" of the song title is Jones's maternal grandfather, whose background as a musician was a source of shame to her devout family. The song ends with a snatch of the hymn Amazing Grace, its meaning flipped around - it wasn't God that saved this poor wretch, but pop.

Halfway through, the record takes a turn for the worse. The title track is a turgid mass of bass-heavy droning and forgettable lyrics. Well Well Well and Love You To Life are dated, funky little numbers that wouldn't be out of place in a yuppie wine bar, circa 1985. They're not Billy Ocean-bad, but Ms Jones should count herself lucky to escape a police investigation for crimes against reggae. Things perk up a bit again around Sunset Sunrise, a Spanish-tinged song written with her son, Paulo, but it's not enough to stop the album fizzling out.

Part of the problem is that Jones is an artist born for the age of music videos and magazine photo spreads. When you're not transfixed by her thousand-yard stare, lines such as "You won't hear me laughing as I terminate your day" (from Corporate Cannibal) are more likely to make you laugh than cower. Ultimately, Hurricane is not the triumphant comeback it could have been. Despite the list of famous collaborators, much of the production work on the album has been done by her current boyfriend, Ivor Guest, who is less well known as a musician than as the fourth Viscount Wimborne, an aristocrat directly related to Winston Churchill and Lady Diana. Perhaps this time around Jones has let love cloud her usually ice-cool judgement. But I wouldn't say it to her face, that's for sure.