Theoretically every intelligent person with good ears can write a Poly Styrene song: let your avarice for junk culture guide you to a decent set of chords and the lyrics will follow. But Germ Free Adolescents remains sui generis because only Poly Styrene can sound like Poly Styrene, not to mention polystyrene, and despite its Gwen Stefani vibes and programmed beats nodding towards Ladytron and Le Tigre in 2002, so does the new, decidedly posthumous Generation Indigo. From Lou Reed’s New Sensations to Robert Forster’s The Evangelist to the B-52’s Funplex, my favorite records by middle aged artists embrace the banal and the offhand, applying a couple of decades’ worth of craft to that which the young overlook (for all its intelligence, the new Paul Simon errs in being compulsive about delineating Important Subjects). But here’s Poly Styrene alchemizing a thesis statement(“Kitsch”) into a disco 2000 classic as vital as “My My Metrocard” and turning homemade sneakers into a synecdoche without drawing attention to the fact. This is real craft.
Noble liberal convictions don’t make the second side sing, however; Poly’s gift for the literal shocks when she affirms her affection for plasticity but when she wants to remind us (and herself) what she’s always believed it dissolves into mere sloganeering, set to halfhearted beats (by contrast Kathleen Hannah so believes in slogans that she reserves her zippiest beats for them). There’s no way of knowing whether Poly Styrene’s death rendered this album essential rather than the sort of curio for which her cult will shell out big bucks on eBay; but I hear no evidence of an enervated sensibility. On the contrary: the oh-death-up-yours on display is the best kind of epitaph.