X-Ray Spex, “Conscious Consumer” [2023 Reissue]

Nearly three decades after its release, the second and final album from Poly Styrene’s formidable punk troupe gets a new life—although its prophetic lyrics prevent it from ever falling out of relevance.

X-Ray Spex, Conscious Consumer [2023 Reissue]

Nearly three decades after its release, the second and final album from Poly Styrene’s formidable punk troupe gets a new life—although its prophetic lyrics prevent it from ever falling out of relevance.

Words: Margaret Farrell

December 20, 2023

X-Ray Spex
Conscious Consumer [2023 Reissue]

The silence following Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex’s culture-shifting 1978 debut album Germfree Adolescents, one of the most significant artworks critiquing mass consumerism and diversifying the mainly white-male presence in punk rock, suggested that the prodigy was done making music. “It isn’t normal for people to be surrounded by people telling them that they’re great,” Styrene said in the BBC documentary Who Is Poly Styrene?. “They think that you must be having a nervous breakdown because you don’t want to see anybody. But you’re not, you’re being perfectly normal saying ‘I want to be by myself.’” Despite her struggle with fame, Styrene never stopped writing, and Conscious Consumer, the long-awaited follow-up to the group’s first LP, was recorded and released 17 years later. Now, three decades after that, their second and final album is getting a new life. 

Conscious Consumer highlights the cruel contradictions of the capitalist-driven Western world with a clear-eyed pop perspective. The first two tracks, “Cigarettes” and “Junk Food Junkie,” expose the troubling reality that we knowingly consume products that will kill us because the institutions with the power to impose regulation for our own betterment won’t for the sake of their own paychecks. “Fields wasted growing tobacco / Could be used to feed the third world countries / This is the Age of Hypocrisy / Everybody’s saying ‘Vote for me! Vote for me!’” she sings. Although there’s plenty to be angry about in these lyrics, Styrene’s voice is never rage-filled, but an unclouded laser beam magnifying her unjust surroundings.  

In 1995, punk was long past its peak, but Conscious Consumer zeroes in on the best of the movement as heard in Styrene’s self-aware humor and acerbic critique of modern culture. As a biracial woman in a wave of skinheads, Styrene was no stranger to exposing the scene where she accumulated fame. “Dog in Sweden” directly calls out punk trailblazer Iggy Pop: “Once upon a lifetime peroxide hair,” she sings of a bygone era. “Remember all those trends you set / And now you are a housewife’s pet.” It feels like an indictment of punk’s inevitable selling out, indoctrinating itself into a mainstream it was initially established to attack. 

In the ’80s, Styrene joined the Hare Krishna movement. Several tracks on this record honor and mourn the slaughter of cows, a sacred symbol equivalent to the God Krishna—“Peace Meal,” for example, advocates for empathic consumption with its declaration of mass murder for those who eat meat. Her cultural critique is heightened by this new sense of enlightenment: “My mother, the Earth, man treats like dirt, her resources being exhausted,” she sings, her voice light and full of whimsy, on “Melancholy.” During these Space Oddity–like verses, a sole washed-out bass drum kick is the track’s heartbeat, a reminder of life’s frailty. Here, the band balances life’s immeasurable awe and the grief we have to bear while watching others obliterate it.

Styrene’s dynamic vocals—pliable, sharp, buoyant—are another reason she was a formidable frontwoman, and her fellow musicians (pre-Germfree saxophonist Lora Logic and original bassist Paul Dean, along with drummer Paul Winterhart and guitarist Crispian Mills) serve to highlight her vocal acrobatics. Aside from the album’s lyrical prescience, Logic’s stealthy saxophone riffs, amidst perky pop melodies that feel like a healthy blend of T. Rex and Cyndi Lauper, are downright delightful. In most cases, Logic’s woodwind is the melodic backbone throughout. This reissue is testament that rock bands can be revitalized with a strong musician behind a bit of brass. 

X-Ray Spex’s music exposes that not much has changed in this sick world since their arrival in the ’70s. More than ever, the present day feels like “the age of hypocrisy” she declared on Conscious Consumer’s opener. As consumers, we’re more aware than ever—all the information at our fingers backing up Styrene’s warnings with hard data doesn’t seem to matter. She isn’t here anymore to warn and enlighten us about society’s pitfalls (Styrene passed away in 2011). Alongside this new document to celebrate her memory, her spirit lives on in the current generation of pop auteurs like FKA twigs and Special Interest’s Alli Logout carrying her critical eye and subversive ear.