The original lineup of X has delivered the band’s very, very, very, very, very patient fans a pandemic present: a surprise drop of the group’s first album in 35 years, “Alphabetland,” released Wednesday morning as a digital download via Bandcamp.
The 11 tracks almost entirely hark back to the frantic sound Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake were known for as recording artists in the early 1980s, with a short but classic stint of albums that even now has many revering X as the greatest punk band of all time. The reunited lineup continued to be heralded as touring favorites in the 21st century, even though until now they had doggedly refrained from writing or recording new material together.
“When your heart is broken, you think every song is about that,” Doe said in a statement announcing the album. “These songs were written in the last 18 months and it blows my mind how timely they are. We all want our family, friends and fans to hear our records as soon as it’s finished. This time we could do that. Thanks to Fat Possum (the group’s current label) and our audience.”
That there was at least the prospect of a full-length new release was no surprise. X revealed to Variety in January 2019 that they’d gone back into the studio in November 2018 and cut five tracks. But there’d been no further official word since then about whether the group planned to complete the project, or whether further new music would necessarily come out in album form.
As is now being revealed, the quartet did go back into the studio in January to resume work and cut seven freshly written additional tracks on top of the initial five. Eleven of those 12 recordings made it onto “Alphabetland.” Rob Schnapf was the producer for both sets of sessions. The songs are credited to the entire group and nine of the 11 are newly penned. (The two exceptions, “Delta 99 Nightmare” and “Cyrano de Berger’s Back,” both date back to the band’s earliest days; the newly recored oldies were released on a 7-inch single last year.)
Reps say the band is working on other ways to make the album available, presumably including a physical release when manufacturing allows, but went with Bandcamp to get it to fans as immediately as possible.
Aside from the closing track, “All the Time in the World,” which has Exene doing spoken-word over a piano track, all the songs on the new album are in a vein stylistically similar to the group’s classic material, although fans will note some different guitar tones popping up from Zoom and the fleeting presence of background sax riffs.
Among the lyrical motifs that may resonate in mid-2020: “Atom bomb bruises, cold war flu” in the title track and “My bank account is down and out and overdrawn / I could go on and on and on” in “Goodbye Year Goodbye.” Amid that resignation, there is also renewal: “Though you may be dearly departed, dearly departed / I’m just getting started,” they sing in “Star Chambered.”
In their January 2019 interview with Variety, Doe and Cervenka had talked about their renewed enthusiasm for recording. “It was great fun being in the studio recording,” Cervenka said after the first sessions. “I’m so happy and excited that we did it, because it’s something I’ve personally wanted for a long time, and I know our followers, our friends and our family all do too. It just got started because the time was right.”
Added Doe, ““I’ll tell you one thing. Thirty-some years after what was a hard time for us doing ‘Ain’t Love Grand,’ to go back in the studio with Billy, and for everyone to be enthusiastic and to get it done, the word that came to mind was gratifying. We went in there and it’s like, ‘Holy s—! We sound like X! That’s cool.’ Because that could not happen, you know?”
(The group’s last studio album in any form was 1993’s “Hey Zeus,” recorded in the period after Zoom had left the band and Tony Gilkyson was on guitar. Zoom split after the unsatisfying recording of 1985’s “Ain’t Love Grand” and returned in 1998 for intermittent live shows that eventually turned into regular touring, even as the group refrained from performing anything newer than the last album widely considered a classic, 1983’s “More Fun in the New World.”)
“When someone hasn’t recorded as a band in such a really long time, there’s so much that can go wrong,” said their producer, Schnapf, at the time. “But this was effortless.”
A tour that would have celebrated the 40th anniversary of X’s debut album, 1980’s “Los Angeles,” has been postponed, like all tours scheduled for the first half of this year.