I’m skeptical of subversion as a form of praise for artists, or an ideal to hold them to. Critical demands for edginess, based in simplistic views of what it means for art to enact progress or hold political value, often recall “disruption,” the Silicon Valley buzzword. The thrill of an excellent pop record is already subversive; delight is disruptive by definition. The four albums reviewed below aspire to subversion and enact it with varying degrees of commitment.
U.S. Girls: In a Poem Unlimited (4AD)
Meg Remy has been releasing experimental pop albums as U.S. Girls for a decade now, but none with the force of her latest noise-dance explosion: nine unsettling, tightly wound amalgamations of shiny plasticity and muddy harshness. In 2018’s musical climate, sleek gleam is synonymous with screaming horror.
“I wanted to work with the pop form sonically so that I could hide the weird shit and the dark messages within it, almost hoping that they would go unnoticed,” Remy told The Ringer, and reigning critical wisdom holds that the illusion of bright pop exuberance conceals her subversive lyrics and biting social commentary. Hardly — this music wears its discord on its sleeve, apparent in the stretched ache of Remy’s voice as well as the thick blotches of mud smeared onto sonic glass. Glittering keyboards and white-funk rhythm guitar hooks are distorted by bursts of static, synthetic textures short-circuiting, raw saxophones bleating and wailing, thus constructing a multifaceted electronic surface gone slightly rotten, tinged with decay.
Lyrically, song after song finds a different, distinct woman meeting a horrific end. In “Pearly Gates,” St. Peter rapes her before letting her into heaven; in “M.A.H.”, she escapes an abusive relationship with Barack Obama; in “Rage of Plastics”, a cover of Canadian folksinger Fiver, she takes a job at an oil refinery and becomes infertile from radiation exposure. The resulting range of narrative juxtapositions conveys variety among fictional characters while suggesting a common female experience, tying violence against women to global political violence and “the fear / That comes with being prey” (“Velvet 4 Sale”). “ The sour, sharp glimmer of the music mirrors the dread expressed in the lyrics. The chewy hooks and her joy in performance counteract it.
Simultaneously topical while addressing a long history of injustice, In a Poem Unlimited isn’t necessarily the album #MeToo has been waiting for–one of many, perhaps. Summing up the album’s lurid, ominous power is a spoken-word interlude on which she asks, in a rasping, crackling whisper, “Why do I lose my voice when I have something to say?”
Turnstile: Time & Space (Roadrunner)
Having made their name in the Baltimore hardcore punk scene, the acclaimed headbangers in Turnstile team up with veteran producer Will Yip and craft the giant, genre-spanning album smaller punk bands dream of. Thankfully, it just sounds like another hardcore album, although perhaps faster and louder and more bloodcurdling.
Formulaicism in punk is largely a product of romanticizing the formula: the starry-eyed assurance that simply playing short choppy, abrasive songs with minimal production effort will guarantee excitement, electricity, subversive social value, and the like. By now the question isn’t whether a punk band will advance the form, it’s whether they’ll be able to string together a set of barbed, efficient hooks in compelling sequence, and this Turnstile does majestically — guitar riffs that slam down with sharpened teeth, power chords played quickly enough that their pounding turns into a blur, drums clobbered with athletic facility.
The compositional attention paid percussive dynamics and the precision of the interlocking guitars produce not intricacy but density, a correlative of sonically chunky solidity. With more complex music, the constant tempo changes and shifts from verse to verse would nauseate; here it registers as eager, itchy nervousness, and keeps you on your toes, always curious to hear what comes next. Brendan Yates yells slogans and catchphrases with a haranguer’s energy, but he’s mainly a sonic element, a source of shrieks and spittle, if anything harsher than the guitars. “High Pressure” soars as staccato piano plinking mimics the rapidfire guitar blast, while the frantic rush of “Generator” is interrupted by a slowed-down guitar solo, tinny in its squeal. The distinctness of individual songs is beside the point as the album whirls by in an exhausting, energizing, dizzy spin.
Fiery, wobbly, infectiously restless, they rock at a marvelously compressed pitch throughout — the album clocks in at 25 minutes. Its jittery buzz lasts a lot longer than that. It’s a testament to the enduring value of musical impatience.
Amen Dunes: Freedom (Sacred Bones)
This strange album, New York indie veteran Damon McMahon’s breakthrough as Amen Dunes, is as lulling and disconcerting as psychedelic folk-rock can get. Vague, yet somehow distinct in its vagueness, it demonstrates how specific recombinations of familiar musical indie-rock tropes can produce a baffling surreality.
Amen Dunes’s floaty, echoey cadences are summed up in McMahon’s voice: a small whimpery thing, resonant, trembling not from vulnerability but from physical necessity, as if his throat can’t hold a note for longer than a second without breaking into quaver. Slurring words, mashing up syllables into phonetic salad, he moans and gargles his way over a confluence of folk guitar, jangle guitar, and generic indie noises. The musical blurriness reflects concealed specificity; it abounds with wispy, satiny guitar hooks that would gleam if they weren’t blunted by a heavier blanket of atmosphere.
Quite pretty when contemplated in the background, the album confounds in how it assembles distinct parts into an indistinct whole. Individual songs click, largely thanks to the rhythm section’s subtly kinetic motion.“Miki Dora,” a tribute to a surfer of the same name, builds splendidly over a glowing, circular guitar riff and a melody whose split halves, mirroring each other, ebb and flow like waves. On “Believe” the band intertwines several fleecy, chilly riffs and strummed parts, creating a churning swirl of an echo chamber. As a whole, though, the album is oddly static. It’s as if he’s aiming for the kind of spiritual rapture that comes with dazed inertia, settling into a peaceful stillness because stillness is the precondition for the sudden rush that will whisk him away. When rapture comes, it’s in bits and pieces, most notably when a visible ripple disturbs the surface.
Given such fuzziness, McMahon’s a tricky read, and the more I listen the less I can tell whether the album’s placidity is a product of passive immersion or active sentimentality, whether this aesthetic is mannered or blissfully unaffected. He’s tied himself to the limitations of the musical puzzle.
Sofi Tukker: Treehouse (Ultra)
It had to happen: boring corporate EDM is out, eclectic fusion EDM is in. Electronic dance DJ Tucker Halpern and the Brazilian-pop-influenced Sophie Hawley-Weld have combined their sensibilities into a single style, a genuinely syncretic blend whose unique attributes are, truly, unlike anything else in either genre.
As musical concoctions that could have been focus-grouped into existence go, this one’s a doozy: generic trop-lite house beats throb and percolate, augmented with sharper and rubberier keyboards, pitched percussion effects, plus samba rhythms and bossa nova harmonies, integrated rather than merely juxtaposed — the streamlined whooshes and smashing drops actually follow trickier rhythmic patterns than the usual. Torn by competing sonic extremes, the plinky, bouncy, rattley synthesizers falter between abrasion and lilt, and often collapse into a squeaky dinkiness.
Hawley-Weld alternates between English and Portuguese, taking a childish delight in the contrast between her soft croon (Portuguese) and her archly half-rapped spoken-word yowl (English). They’re aiming to bridge different listening contexts — lounge easy-listening, late-night dance clubs, megafestivals, all at once, and their coded genre mashups are supposed to mix sophistication and crassness.
All I hear is crassness, though; Hawley-Weld repeatedly declaring herself “baaaaaatshit crazy” in a drawn-out sneer neutralizes the multifaceted beat underneath, while the beat’s own mildness cancels the lyrical sentiment. The rest of the album follows a similar dynamic.
Attempting to reconcile modes that should perhaps stay separate, they fizzle. They’d be refreshing at a festival, as EDM acts go — not loud or bro-ish enough to irritate.