In America, the term “think tank” has connotations with the hard right. The words “conservative think tank ___” often preface a sobering news story about why it’s such a great idea to cut taxes on the 1% or keep the minimum wage well below $15 USD
I don’t know why Blur – not an American band, certainly – chose to entitle its 2003 collection of world music and nervous breakdown freak-outs Think Tank, but to this American, it has delicious irony. In track 0 (I’ll explain in a minute), guest Phil Daniels even says: “This is England, this ain’t America for fuck’s sake.”
The Iraq War had just started when Think Tank was released. Blur’s Damon Albarn had worked with Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja and others to protest against UK involvement. The songs on Think Tank obviously predate the conflict, although they came to life in the geopolitcally tense years of 2001 and 2002, when Afghanistan was under siege and planning for Iraq was underway.
Blur also lost guitarist Graham Coxon during this time, and rather than replace him they continued on a trio. In light of the band’s growing directionlessness on 1999’s 13 and its forgettable “Music is my Radar” from 2000’s Best of Blur, though, the change was welcome. Blur could finally stop trying to be Pavement or the anti-Oasis.
Think Tank is nothing like the rest of Blur’s catalog. It has Moroccan instrumentation, sax all over the place, two of the longest songs the group ever recorded, and only minimal guitar. Nothing on it seems like a single, from a band that once released a whole box set of them.
I remember Think Tank as the last album that mattered to me as physical item, for two reasons. First, its artwork, done by Banksy, was a pleasure to hold and look it. Second, its U.S. CD version also had a pregap track – a song hidden before track 1, that could only be discovered by rewinding the CD from the very start. It took me 3 months to figure out it was there. We’ve lost a lot in the transition from LPs and CDs to MP3s and Spotify.
That track, “Me, White Noise” changes the entire album’s flow and message. Rather than start with the squelching “Ambulance,” the journey begins with some sneaky, not-quite-house rhythms and the surprisingly cynical commentary of Phil Daniels, who 9 years earlier had provided the classic narration on “Parklife,” one of Blur’s most memorable songs.
It’s one of the only Blur songs to contain profanity, and it’s stuffed with lyrical gems, including “so you look at the wall and what does the wall say? ‘i ain’t a mirror, fuck off!'” It slinks and snakes through almost 7 minutes, rising to an echoey, multitracked, frenetic chorus (“You’re boring!”), and then retreats into the opening squalor of “Ambulance,” only after Albarn has been reduced to ranting and Daniels to talking about how he’d use a gun if he could get one.
The rest of the songs aren’t nearly so aggressive, although “Crazy Beat” (the weakest number by far – almost an alternative take of “Song 2”) and the delightfully desertified “We’ve Got a File on You” stand out for their upfront mixes. Most of the tunes are subdued, but their subtlety shouldn’t be mistaken for sameness. Blur touch upon African-influenced pop (“Caravan,” “Out of Time”), free jazz (“Jets”), funk (“Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club”), trip-hop (“On My Way to the Club”), and Primal Scream-esque tails (“Brothers & Sisters”). There’s also “Good Song” and “Sweet Song,” both of which live up to their titles by snaking through various chord and arrangement changes.
Overall, Think Tank feels like a dream of peace intermittently interrupted by flashes of nightmare, from the NSA/GCHQ paranoia of “We’ve Got a File on You” to the post-everything wasteland of “Me, White Noise.” Even the roughness of “Crazy Beat” and the haze of “Jets” show a creeping panic at the edges of the album.
By the time it all ends with Coxon’s lone contribution on “Battery in Your Leg,” you’ve probably forgotten that Blur made it through the previous 13 tracks without him. The song’s interplay of Fripp-like guitar textures and piano is quintessential 70s and as such in step with the album’s other Bowie/Eno/Clash touchpoints.
But it’s Think Tank’s awkward flow that endures. Its transitions from quiet to loud, from commercialism to introspection, and from one genre exercise to the next, is unified by its desert atmosphere and strange anxiety. That makes Think Tank quintessentially 00s and as good a representation as any of the the Iraq War’s impact beyond the battlefield and on culture.
Primal Scream once entitled a song “Bomb the Pentagon,” before 9/11 happened. By 2002, it had morphed into a mediocre stomper called “Rise,” and the legendary Scottish band was never the same.
See, from 1999 to 2001, Primal Scream were angry and politically prescient. That’s a rare combination, a glass of ice water in a hell of Rage Against the Machines.
Plus, despite their name, The Primal Scream (as they were dubbed on records from this period) weren’t/aren’t always a noisy band. Prior to the 2000s, they were most famous for an LP called Screamadelica, which was chock-full of gospel rockers and slight synth plinking. I never got into it, but it was a seminal record in the UK house scene and it set the stage for Britpop’s subtle mixture of rock and dance. The group followed it up with a terrible, Stones-y album of boogie rock with the Confederate battle flag on the cover (1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up).
XTRMNTR was the anti-Screamdelica. Just look at that opener – “Kill All Hippies.” The moment when the synths finally kick in after the sample dialogue intro is one of those Album Moments (like the first drums on Nevermind, or the opening notes of “Come Together” on Abbey Road) when you know that something good is underway. It’s loud, it’s ballsy, and it sounds good, without the excessive dynamic range compression that makes so much music unbearable.
I got XTRMNTR in the mail on a rainy day in early 2003, when I came home from school after vomiting in the hallway outside history class. So I got listen to Bobby Gillespie shout “sick, sick, fuck” at the end of “Pills” for the first time while actually sick. This album will always be with me, having engrained itself so vividly into my mind and my body on that January day.
11 years later, what sticks with me about XTRMNTR is how it manages to be both catchy as hell and, improbably, a proper assimilation of jazz (one that’s not stuffy or rambling at all). “Swastika Eyes” has a melody and bassline that cannot be forgotten (and that production! Jagz Kooner pulls his best saber of paradise for this cut) – try going around humming it some day and see what kinds of reactions you get (it’s an anti-fascist song, but easily misunderstood out of context). It’s only minutes separated from “Blood Money,” which is just about as good as a rock band can do in getting to 1970s Miles Davis. Then there’s MBV Arkestra, a jazzed-up remake of “If They Move, Kill ‘Em” from 1997’s Vanishing Point.
What kind of band could make “autosuggestion psychology/elimination policy” a hummable couplet with first-rate musical backing? One with a first-rate cast. In addition to the core members, Primal Scream assembled a who’s who of 80s and 90s rock and electronica – Bernard Sumner (Joy Division/New Order), Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), Gary Mounfield (The Stone Roses), The Chemical Brothers, half of the Two Lone Swordsmen (Keith Tenniswood).
XTRMNTR has its foot on the pedal the whole way through, except for the peaceful respite “Keep Your Dreams,” which is easily the most gorgeous song they’ve come up with. It’s anger, but versatile anger – in addition to the aforementioned edgy jazz, there’s scuzzy distortion rock (“Accelerator”), bass-driven nightmares (“Exterminator,” “Insect Royalty”), angry faux hip-hop (“Pills”) and something that defies all categorization (the awesomely futuristic “Shoot Speed Kill Light”).
Even though I’m a writer by trade, I often give lyrics a pass when I review music. But here, Primal Scream does real work with its words. Look at “Exterminator”:
Gun metal skies
Exterminate the underclass
Exterminate the telepaths
No civil disobedience
This album came out at the height of the U.S. dot-com boom (early 2000) and on the eve of 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and its lyric sheet can be read as a compelling document signifying that the blissful 1990s were finally over in the West.
I didn’t place it in that context since I didn’t listen to it at all until 2003, but looking at it now I can see it as not only a commentary on the violent currents running beneath the peace and prosperity of the 90s, but as a predictor of the recent age of inequality. “Exterminate the underclass” has been the implicit goal of years of policy on both sides of the Atlantic, while “no civil disobedience” is the unwritten slogan of an era in which politics are brushed under the rug of subtly normative concepts like “innovation,” “solutions,” and “disruption.” Even the seemingly throwaway “English high-rise” has economic undertones, plus added weight in light of the growing movement for Scottish independence.
Later in 2000, fellow Britons (for now) Radiohead released Kid A, which topped numerous best of the 00s albums lists and was heralded as the Last Real Album (I think this claim is hard to quantify). I didn’t hear Kid A until after I had spun XTRMNTR countless times, and Radiohead’s “masterpiece” sounded so slight in comparison.
It wasn’t just the sound quality and production and songwriting, either – it was the entire approach. Kid A has been lauded for its commentary on pre-millennial angst and the vague “computer age” (picking up the torch from 1997’s OK Computer), but it’s basically a blank canvas that isn’t political in any discernible fashion. XTRMNTR isn’t specific enough to seem dated, yet still not so generalist that it ends up meaning all things to all people. If we’re discussing the scarier implications of an age of robots, automation, surveillance, advanced AI, and big data, it’s worth it to look at them as political creations, with human authors seeking fame and money, rather than immutable forces that just materialized out of the ether.
Primal Scream did that in a way that Radiohead didn’t. But that’s the least of XTRMNTR‘s merits. Listening to it again yesterday for the first time in years, it seemed fresh, and angry in an evergreen way that so much angry music – which is almost always exhausting – isn’t. Keeping the dream (alive), indeed.
Kentucky is blue, and not just because of the countless shirts, caps and jackets adorned with the colors of the University of Kentucky. The grass is blue in select parts of the Bluegrass State. Down along the EST/CST divide near Greensburg, the sky over its knobs is azure well into the night.
La Roux means The Red in the English. I first heard both of The Red’s albums in The Bluest of states, Kentucky, five years apart in different towns.
La Roux’s 2009 debut was a labored nod to the 1980s, an attempt to bow politely in spite of one’s rogue quiff and stiff suit. Its “Bulletproof” improbably blared out of the blue on the speakers of a Lexington bar, while I drank Old Rasputin and chatted with two mathematicians. My blonde hair stood up just like ton the album cover.
Its hooks got under the skin, but aside from opener “In the Kill” and the pouting “I’m Not Your Toy,” no other song on the self-titled LP registered. Listening to it sober was no different than hearing it inebriated; one long, sub-Working for a Nuclear Free City haze, the Reagan/Thatcher years filtered through the “Flashdance” soundtrack rather than The Stone Roses or Grace Jones.
It was the typical 2009 pop record given that just like Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster (remember “Bad Romance”?) it was basically one monster sleek single, surrounded by material that was consciously retro. Just as Gaga mined Queen, La Roux excavated deep Eurythmics and Duran Duran album tracks.
While on vacation in Kentucky last week, I sat down and listened to La Roux’s belated follow-up, Trouble in Paradise, in one sitting, which I hadn’t sadly done with any other album in more than a month (the last being Deadmau5’s spectacular While 1 2). The sky was clear, there were clinking bottles or talk of real analysis in a crowded room; down home sapphire paradise gave Paradise a rapt audience of one.
The first thing you notice about La Roux’s sophomore effort is the guitar. The rhythm playing on “Uptight Downtown,” by Elly Jackson herself (now the sole proprietor of the La Roux enterprise,) imparts a muscularity that would have seemed gauche 5 years ago, amid all those cold, maudlin synth lines on La Roux. The six-string is a mainstay throughout, and Jackson’s scratchy rhythm playing is sometimes complemented by intricate picking.
Its momentum, started by the opening guitar work, never subsides. The production is open and spacious, with ample room for echoey Caribbean tones and full-bodied guitar, bass and drums. It’s a bit more 1970s than 1980s, with shades of Van Dyke Parks’ silly Discover America in particular and an AOR vibe in general – even the deep cuts are hooky. This is Rumours for synthpop.
“Kiss and Not Tell” (are you getting the clever titles yet?) throws a ton of shit into the mix – piano runs, synth-like guitar, guitar-like synth, prominent bass, multi-tracked vocals (Jackson’s voice is much better utilized here than on La Roux), and yet it never sounds dense. There’s room galore for all that Caribbean (Hawaiian? oh yeah, “Hawaiian breeze” – there it is on “Paradise is You”) air. The music is tight yet there’s space all around.
With the first two tracks so taut and thrilling, the third track, “Cruel Sexuality,” swoops in to loosen things up. For a while, anyway. It takes a left turn into a catchy chant midway through and then slowly weaves the original hook – also memorable – back into the mix. “You make me happy in my everyday life/Why must you keep me in your prison at night?” could be a sentiment for the album’s song structure transitions and balance of breeze and bravado.
There is some sameness throughout, which Pitchfork noted in its somewhat negative review. “Sexotheque” (again with the titles!) uses the rhythm guitar + synth + tropicalia formula from “Kiss and Not Tell,” but it has its own fantastic hook (the same goes for the epic “Silent Partner,” which one-ups Flock of Seagulls). Jackson’s vocal hooks help differentiate these songs. She even dredges up a Grace Jones sample to give extra smokiness to the already sultry “Tropical Chancer” (my favorite of the album’s wordplay titles).
And look at that: there are a mere 9 tracks on this album, with no Best Buy/iTunes/digital exclusives, remixes, or bonus discs. It clocks in at only 41 minutes; it could be an LP! There are two tracks more than 5 minutes long, with one over 7 minutes long. This is a classicist album from an artist who half a decade ago seemed like just another post-album singles act. I hope the next one isn’t five years off.
Intro: Musica practica
The music album review is a blank canvas. Specialized, technical music criticism – anything that addresses time signatures, keys, or the musicians’ technical ability at length – has long since left the mainstream, leaving behind abundant opportunities for writers to unfurl lengthy tracts infused with anecdotes, fake correspondence, riffs on Marxism, and geographical inaccuracy.
The divergence of technical critique and music writing may be the result of rapid expansion in opportunities to consume and experience music. This growth that has not been matched by advances that would make music production any easier. Roland Barthes was onto something when he hypothesized about “two musics” in an essay, noting the ascent of receptive music at the expense of its productive counterpart:
“[P]assive, receptive music, sound music, is become the music (that of concert, festival, record, radio): playing has ceased to exist; musical activity is no longer manual, muscular, kneadingly physical, but merely liquid, effusive, ‘lubrificating” …”
EDM is ground zero for the emerging dominance of “passive, receptive music.” With DJs as well known for their record collection as their technical abilities, the musical producer has become one with the festival-goer – sort of like Deadmau5.
The music writer has been acquiescent in the transformation, by making commentary on tracks – but especially albums – immensely personal and unacademic:
- Reading a positive album review is the equivalent of running up to someone in a crowd and asking for an explanation of why the artist is so great.
- Reading a negative take is often barely better than being swarmed by a faceless Internet commenter.
Yet, there’s art in Internet comments, and music isn’t a form to be evaluated solely on technical merits, especially given its inevitability in so many contexts. After all, even the top 40 music playing in the background at the mall is a successor to the country music that once played in the countryside, or the hip-hop that spilled over 1970s and 1980s NYC. It’s contextual music that listeners cannot curate and are instead forced to experience. Such music, under such circumstances, almost deserves a similarly imprecise, broad-brush form of criticism in return; technical dissection is asymmetric.
Learning from styles around the Web
There are a million and one music review sites out there, including, sometimes, this blog. Everyone’s a (music) critic. Like the Internet comment, it presents an easy way to produce words at scale and create an appearance of sophistication. I looked at four sites that I have frequently read for music criticism at some point. Here’s how to write a review in each of their house styles, which between them cover a comprehensive range of approaches to criticism. Combining traits of each is a good foundation for reviewing.
- Background: Pitchfork is one of the most successful music sites on the Web. Started in 1996, it has grown into a brand synonymous with indie music, and it sponsors the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago’s Union Park.
- Stylistic hallmarks: Introduction heavy on personal anecdotes and/history of the artist; subsequent historical information on the artist’s back catalog; references to classic albums perhaps not from the same genre (“OK Computer is, after all, one of the greatest albums our generation has experienced in its time,” in a review of Grandaddy’s Sophtware Slump); if not, perhaps comparisons to similar-sounding artists (see below); references to other media (“”As a lifestyle, you always being the focal point is innately unhealthy,” Ocean recently told The New York Times,” in a review of Frank Ocean).
- Representative sentence: “There comes a certain moment in the life of a music fan when the realization hits that you’ve crossed the line from being merely interested in a band to being a collector, a bit obsessed maybe– scouring magazines for a curiosity fix, digging in dollar bins, scanning instrument credits in used shops, making long lists of great songs for driving past lakes in the moonlight, buying things by bands that look like they might sound kind of like the Smiths, and…well, half a decade after you cross that line, you look around your home and the teetering piles of discs you’ve barely had time to listen to, clear the liner notes from the second Nuggets boxed set off your coffee table and think to yourself, “is this what I’ve become?” (introduction to review of reissue of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible).
- Strengths: Pitchfork’s approach has matured over 18 years and resulted in good journalism if nothing else. Reviews often link to contextual and corroborating materials. Each review is of digestible yet comprehensive length, with key tracks highlighted and assessed in comparison to each other and the band’s overall catalog.
- Weaknesses: Early Pitchfork reviews are by and large awful, with self-indulgence on both the negative (a mean-spirited takedown of Tool) and positive side (the review of Radiohead’s Kid A talks about a song sounding like “mating tyrannosaurs”). Also, certain genres and artists seemed walled-off from Pitchfork’s good ratings (anything 7.0 and above, it seems like) – Pitchfork’s stylistic focus is narrow.
- Background: Rolling Stone is a music and entertainment magazine operating since the 1960s.
- Stylistic hallmarks: Short overall format; generalizations (“EDM has changed pop”); lifestyle reporting; rhetorical questions (“Where do lonely hearts go?”); rockism.
- Representative sentence: “Three years ago, Lana Del Rey seemed to hatch into existence as a fully formed provocateur: She has introduced previously untasted flavors to pop music (her slow, torchy genre of choice might best be described as “Calvin Klein Eternity commercial”) and shaped herself into as crafty a video star as Lady Gaga, making her racy, mysterious clips a core part of her brand.”
- Strengths: RS reviews are brief, rarely testing the attention span. The five-star system is also much more discrete, if limited, than the 0.0-10.0 system of Pitchfork; a 4-star album is easy to tell apart from a 3-star one by RS’s criteria, whereas distinguishing between 7.0 and 7.9 on Pitchfork is more difficult.
- Weaknesses: Too much lifestyle reporting tinged with rockism. Certain artists (such as Bruce Springsteen) could get five stars for anything. Others are almost guaranteed 4 stars for their mainstream debut (e.g., AFI’s Sing the Sorrow).
- Background: Resident Advisor is a massive, fully-featured website focused primarily on house music and electronica.
- Stylistic hallmarks: Usually just a few paragraphs; heavy on adjectives and similes (“the soft, grainy feel of old black and white footage”); highly contextual – no album is assessed in isolation from its respective scene or its creator’s catalog, unless a debut; sharp, straightforward transitions (“Other tracks are less effective. “); nice short introductions, occasional generalizations (“As genres enjoy peaks in popularity…”).
- Representative sentence: “Peder Mannerfelt and Malcolm Pardon aren’t lacking ambition. The Swedish duo’s new album as Roll The Dice is the third in a series that’s chronicled the full sweep of Western civilisation over the last two centuries, from the agrarian existence evoked on their self-titled debut, through the Industrial Revolution on 2011’s In Dust, to the late-capitalist society of Until Silence.”
- Strengths: Highly educational: I knew almost nothing about house or EDM before reading RA, but now it’s the genre I am most comfortable talking about. Rating system is a simple 1-5 stars. Article comments are actually worth reading an informative, a small miracle among Internet comments sections.
- Weaknesses: Most reviews are in a narrow range between 3-4.5 stars. Language can be imprecise and only tangentially related to music (“hardly lacking in ideas, but they could do with more finessing”). Information about the artist’s background can derail reviews due to their short length.
- Background: One of the first websites to ever publish album reviews, warr.org still has a Web 1.0 interface. It only reviews albums and live concerts, and sometimes publishes essays.
- Stylistic hallmarks: Paragraph length; rapid-fire analysis of tracks and musical characteristics, sometimes on the technical side (“goes from massive power chords to a capella nursery rhyme to 50’s doo-wop); occasional humor (“look up ‘wretched excess’ in the dictionary, and you should find a picture of this double album”); no generalizations.
- Representative sentence: “Sadness and loss permeate this record; spare arrangements and his gripping delivery add up to what is perhaps his most powerful and coherent statement.”
- Strengths: No-nonsense and uninterested in lifestyle reporting. Gets right to the point. Is not beholden to prevailing critical attitudes or consensus – the reviewers’ destruction of Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Radiohead and others show that they have no sacred cows; incredible scope, with reviews of everything from Latin and jazz to Turkish pop.
- Weaknesses: Occasionally opaque – ratings may seem hard to justify with the text supplied. Standards are super-high – they haven’t awarded any album five stars since 2000.
Putting it all together
With some background in reading album reviews (reviewing the reviews, even), writing them isn’t so hard:
- Listen to the whole album 3 times. This provides enough exposure to the album’s overall sound to make an informed assessment.
- Pick out 3 or 4 tracks to touch upon – the introductory and closing tracks are always good candidates, as are the longest tracks.
- Write the track-by-track analysis first and introduction last. That way, the latter will square with what you wrote about the actual music.
- Introduce cultural or personal materials only to strengthen the analytical core. Don’t make the entire piece about your experience listening to Dark Side of the Moon at an MtG tournament.
Intro: The Year 2000
2000 was a pivotal year. It would have seemed like a cliché to say that at the time, given the hysteria about Y2K and the number of people who thought that they were witnessing the arrival of a new millennium (that wouldn’t happen till the next year). But like a fine aged Kentucky bourbon, 2000 becomes bolder, more sepia-toned and more important as the years pile up
As if it were aware of its own status as the closer of the 20th century, the year arguably represented the last hurrah for what digital dualists call the “analog” world. Blockbuster made $800 million on late fees, demonstrating the ludicrous high-water mark of pre-Netflix physical media rentals. CD sales (the CD is actually a “digital” medium, which I think causes real issues for all the digital/analog nonsense) were largely unimpacted by Napster or piracy, if only because people hadn’t lapsed into comas of convenience supported by broadband telecom networking. The U.S. presidential election was largely free of Nate Silver-grade analysis. The World Trade Center was still standing.
In February 2000, The Smashing Pumpkins attempted a dramatic “return to rock” by releasing MACHINA/The Machines of God. The band had spent the previous three years in turmoil, following the death of touring keyboardists Jonathan Melvoin and the ejection of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain from the lineup. Frontman Billy Corgan, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, and guitarist James Iha churned out the dreary, boring Adore in the summer of 1998. The record showed the bands taking the absence of Chamberlain’s drumming far too literally – its songs were filled with watery electronic textures, drum machines, and songs about people named Sheilia. Two years later, Radiohead would do much the same thing with the grossly overrated Kid A and receive ludicrous acclaim for doing so.
Chamberlain returned to the fold for MACHINA, although his return coincided with the departure of Wretzky and her replacement by Hole’s Melissa Auf Der Maur. Still, the Pumpkins were never really a “band” in the conventional sense – it’s hard to know how much Wretzky and Iha did on record aside from their obvious contributions to 1995’s Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, and one is tempted to regard the Pumpkins as a good idea for a band, with an Asian-American guitarist, blonde female bassist, white guy drummer, and androgynous bald frontman, when in fact only Corgan and Chamberlain really drove their sound.
The Pumpkins had always been a commercially successful band. Even Adore went platinum. But MACHINA was entering into a very different record market – one characterized by the rise of Eminem (and the broader shift from rock to rap as the public’s music franca), and the peak of physical record dominance. Thirteen years later, it’s amazing to see how conscious MACHINA was of its own era.
What does it mean to try hard?
The Smashing Pumpkins obviously worked hard. Corgan’s prolificness resulted in monstrosities like Mellon Collie and endless b-side compilations and box sets. Their shortest album (Gish) was still 45 minutes long, revealing the band’s odd place among the scores of punk-influenced contemporaries such as Nirvana and the Pixies. With the exception of Adore, the Pumpkins were also very much a guitar-driven band. Peak period records such as Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie exhibited the band contorting the guitar into new possibilities, ranging from Loveless-style walls of sound to something that prefaced the impending scourge of nu-metal.
MACHINA is a much-maligned record that did not sell well. It barely went gold and any legacy it might have created evaporated once the band broke up in late 2000/early 2001 (they have since reunited, but they current band has nothing in common with the classic years). But its lyrical and topical concerns reveal much greater depth than any other Pumpkins record, and its sentiments are as good a chronicle of the music landscape in 2000 as anything.
Take “I of the Mourning,” one of the record’s singles and part of its excellent opening six. Corgan mentions “blowing the dust off my guitar” to show that he’s getting back to work, as if the electronic stew of Adore was just studio goofery/lazing, or something that occurred inside his head (“I’ve just been living in my head,” he recounts in opener “The Everlasting Gaze”). Moreover, he’s expecting his radio to play his “favorite song,” in what now feels like a downright ancient paean to the curatorial, particulars powers of radio DJs to play likable songs. Post-Napster, post-iPod, post-whatever, radio is now just dreck built upon a junk heap of “big data” and asking anyone to play your favorite song will only get you the audio equivalent of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” MACHINA lives in a world in which there is still discernible, distinct labor functions for human beings in the music business: the artist as manual instrument player, and the radio DJ as the middle man in the taste making business.
The record’s treatment of labor and effort shows up in its sonic palette, too. The guitars are aggressively mixed, and the drum work ranks with Chamberlin’s best (just listen to those fills on “Stand Inside Your Love”). But it’s not a complete back-to-rock affair. Pitchfork may have been off the mark is saying that it was thoroughly “marinated” in synthesizer, but the electronic trappings of Adore (and tbh, of Mellon Collie, which began the Pumpkins’ branching off into keyboards) are still here.
“The Sacred and the Profane,” “The Crying Tree of Mercury,” and “Blue Skies Bring Tears” all have that distinctive late 80s Cure vibe that is right at the edge of minor-key guitar and synthesizer. The crunch of “The Everlasting Gaze” wouldn’t be out of place on an EDM record, and just listen to the syncopations of “Raindrops + Sunshowers” – it begs to be compared to Duran Duran, and Corgan removes any doubt by quoting “Save a Prayer.” This record has techno – or more precisely, robots – on the brain, even as it tries to rock out, and for all of its humanistic posturing, it ends up taking the position of acquiescing to electronica’s spell.
To get a better glimpse of how deeply MACHINA cares about the effects of automation, robots, and the removal of human labor from music, just look at the neat lyrical bridge that connects “The Everlasting Gaze” and the admittedly awful “Heavy Metal Machine” (which is one of the record’s few weak points). In the former, Corgan proclaims that “you know I’m not dead,” but in the latter he asks “if I were dead, would my records still sell?”
Wondering about the alive/dead status of the Pumpkins’ members is hardly a front and center concern for the listener – it isn’t even the case for bands such as Nirvana whose music now survives saddled with the baggage of dead members. So why is Corgan fixated on it? Because he’s wondering if all this effort will be for naught – that the return to guitars, the dramatic reentry after a half-decade of drug/death/electronica-induced malaise will fail. The fictional band that is the backbone of the record’s loose theme will live on, like deathless robots, but will they fail without their human creators?
Success from failure
And the record did fail, in a way. MACHINA didn’t sell and isn’t well-regarded, a point driven home by the almost instantaneous follow-up of MACHINA II, a cobbled-together set of demo-quality songs from the same sessions (e.g., there’s an inferior version of “Speed Kills,” the marvelous number included on the vinyl and international editions of the first MACHINA). But the record tried; it even has a song called “Try, Try, Try,” for christsake.
The first six numbers are a delight before the listener hits the temporary wall of “Heavy Metal Machine.” Even after that, gorgeous numbers like “This Time,” “The Age of Innocence,” and “With Every Light” showoff a maturity and range that simply doesn’t show up in the one-note (not literally; and it is a good “note,” admittedly) Siamese Dream or the hard-to-digest Mellon Collie.
I haven’t listened to anything the band recorded after Zeitgeist, itself hardly a great record. But when I go back to the catalog, I often start with MACHINA since it’s intellectually dense and provocative even 13 years later – the perfect artifact for overqualified humanistic nerds.