The cruel wisdom of Steve Albini

The premise of Gorillaz, André 3000 and James Murphy’s 2012 collaboration, “DoYaThing“, was based on a thirty-second encounter Damon Albarn had with Brian Eno. Somehow, this is stretched to fill a thirteen-minute wig-out in which André 3000 repeatedly yells, “I’m the shit!” in tones alternating between satisfaction, hyperactivity, frustration, and incredulity. The encounter in question (Albarn asked Eno, “How’s it going Brian?”; the professorial Eno replied, “Everything I’m working on is coming out great,” with a surprising amount of hubris and breeziness) is a stand-in for the wider social trends of self-publicising, self-aggrandising, and under-thinking.

Often, the smallest observation can serve a synecdochical role. Steve Albini, of the minimalist punk trio Shellac, knows this well. In “House Full Of Garbage”, from their 1998 album Terraform, Albini asks us to “Imagine a man so proud / He built a monument to himself / A mountain of garbage / In his house”. It’s a weird, loopy image—this ungainly giant in thrall to himself and oblivious of the trash he lives amidst. But on closer inspection, it’s not so alien. The cult of personality. The famous actor’s den of squalor. The success of the socialite, not blessed with an intrinsic talent. A verse later, the protagonist can no longer keep his lust in check. “Imagine his wife / Asleep in daybed / Times they make love in it / With the doo-doo and the fæces on the wall.” Albini’s description turns more base, more corrupted. Beneath him, the bass guitar is jagged, caustic and disdainful. The guitar is intermittent and unhinged, like a tightly sprung toy whose tension is permitted to be released only sporadically.

Earlier on the same album, the brash “This Is A Picture” takes a wry look at conceptual art. “This is a picture / Of things going a little out of hand / This is a sculpture / Of a couple of things we gotta get straight.” These are cruel parodies of the objects adorning galleries, hanging loosely from contrived narratives.

The interplay between wry, malevolent social commentary and brutal, economical rock music could be Shellac’s defining quality. On “Watch Song”, which closes the 1000 Hurts LP, Albini verbally dismantles the titular object while the arrangement behind him does much the same.

“I’ve paid more than anyone would advise for this watch and so far I am / Disappointed in it / It beeps at me at noon and seven and five and I cannot turn / Off the piece of shit!”

The dissatisfaction conferred by an inadequate consumer good is both comic and depressing. The drums ricochet like firecrackers; the guitar-fills land like punches in a Batman cartoon. Eventually, via further sonic and lyrical hilarity, the song disassembles itself, into just a heap of Trainer’s drums. The suburban malaise is complete.

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