No band moves us further toward a new era of rock than Living Colour. For one thing, its members are black, and with enormous, sharp exhilaration are regaining what they quite properly see as the music’s black origins. And as a consequence, they end up covering a vast amount of musical and cultural ground. Their first album, Vivid (which was released in 1988 and went platinum in 1989), featured contributions from both Mick Jagger, who produced two cuts, and rappers from that most militant of rap groups, Public Enemy, which added cameos to a comic song about racism.
Time’s Up breaks into still-newer areas: What the band now gives us is rock that sometimes doesn’t seem to be any form of popular music ever heard before. Consider the many solos by guitarist Vernon Reid. They attack with corrosive, almost physical force, sliding and howling in a hard-rock style that descends from Jimi Hendrix to heavy metal. But Reid — in an intricate dance with the jabbing attack of bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer William Calhoun — often leapfrogs into rhythmic hyperspace, sliding around the outline of a beat that for moments on end no one explicitly plays. Such complicated musical thinking is common in jazz but almost unknown in rock. Living Colour widens rock’s scope, introducing, in an album aimed at a wide audience, a tough- minded kind of music-making normally found only in far more intellectual art.
The lyrics throughout are also full of ideas. The first songs discuss personal and social problems, among them the scary life of a drug dealer (”New Jack Theme”), approaching environmental disaster (”Time’s Up”), racial stereotypes (”Pride”), and the need to get beyond the blind worship of Elvis and the ambiguity, for black people, of calling a white man who sang in a black style the king of rock (”Elvis Is Dead”).
Toward the end, ”Solace of You,” with its glowing reggae beat, brings momentary relief. And solutions appear, or a state of mind that could lead to solutions. Two songs, ”Tag Team Partners” and ”This Is the Life,” suggest that we’d better make the best of the only life we’ve got and that we’re all in it together.
But quick summaries can’t do this record justice. It’s densely packed with darting detours, flashing allusions to other artists (Public Enemy, for instance, and Paul Simon), and other surprises — including a crystalline solo by Reid in pure jazz style, which in the group’s characteristic genre-busting manner gets tossed into a song about safe and unsafe sex (”Under Cover of Darkness”) that also features the majestic rapper Queen Latifah.
The album gets so complex, in fact, that it’s fair to wonder whether there are any pop hits on it, except maybe the peaceful ”Solace of You,” the only cut as immediately appealing as ”Cult of Personality” or the other successful singles from Vivid. Living Colour surprised the world before, though — and with a record this varied and powerful they deserve to do it again, earning an even greater success. A