Tuning into Beats 1 one Sunday, a little early for a rerun of a Time Crisis episode (thanks for the memories, Ezra), I caught the frontman of Panic At The Disco on “Gratitude”, closing out the show with Weezer’s one undisputed—if atypical—masterpiece, “Only In Dreams”. I listen to very little music resembling Weezer’s œuvre. But that song always gets me, with its hellhole-outsider perspective on modern romance.
Six years later, The Dismemberment Plan released their own undisputed masterpiece: Emergency & I; a 45-minute elegy to a defunct era; a reflection on a kind of dread that wouldn’t become part of common parlance for another ten years, at the crest of the millennial wave. It’s of a piece with “Only In Dreams”, only weirder, and less naïve.
Emergency & I veers from open-chord sunshine (as on the achingly beautiful “The City”) to all-out sonic chaos (for example, the loping weirdness of “Memory Machine”), sometimes within the same song (“Gyroscope”). Its sincerity is caustic, throughout—the outpourings of an outsider, but not one so gawky or basic as Rivers Cuomo. Like Weezer, The Dismemberment Plan can be seen as a precursor to emo; unlike that band, the pop sensibility of their music is shot through with the avant garde.
Techno-dread. Fear of social alienation. A sense of the ineluctable, as you rush to embrace the city that’s swallowing you whole. These are the themes that frontman Travis Morrison nails on this album, and they’re not dissimilar from those explored on Modest Mouse’s magnum opus, The Moon And Antarctica. But the textures are crisp rather than windswept, and the arrangements resemble urban portraits rather than charred landscapes. Joe Easley’s drums fairly erupt from the speakers on occasion, as if a post-hardcore band has invaded the studio. Eric Axelson’s keyboards are delightfully dilettantish; the performance of an ingénue. The dissonant interplay between guitar and bass lends the album a permanently quizzical frown.
There are so many moments to delight in, even as you’re struck by the anguish of the life and times the songs’ author is experiencing. The atonal squall in “The Jitters”, which passes back and forth between the channels. The jittery urgency of “Back and Forth”, which has the feel of a man trying to outrun the Earth’s rotation. And all the while, glorious melodic earworms, like the one underpinning the cut-and-paste rhythm and samples of “You Are Invited”—the song I consider to be the album’s centrepiece. Life’s ugliness never sounded so beautiful.
On the subject of men trying to outrun the Earth’s rotation, Kanye West’s latest album, The Life Of Pablo. Leave to one side the fact its creator is still creating it; leave also to the side its moments of anthemic hubris—this is (loosely) a hip-hop album, after all. This album should be analysed mainly for its most melancholy, downbeat songs, which bear the stamp of an artist scared of his own cult of persona.
After a first act that majors on hyperactive could-be-hits, The Life Of Pablo cuts to the deranged grandeur of “Freestyle 4”. Atop a sample of Goldfrapp’s “Human” (who’d have thought? More evidence of the artist’s impeccably diverse listening habits.) West tells a deeply transgressive, libidinous tale. Whereas a track earlier he’d rather film his sexual exploits for replay value, here he is focused on the immediate shock. After the rap, which softly morphs into ever-more twisted forms, the music slurs into a monophonic twitch, the jarring death throes of an android. You’re reminded that Kanye has a pulse, even if it’s on the blink.
On a musical level, “Waves” is breathtakingly yearning, snippets of wordless cries calling out to the universe for an iota of fellow-feeling. West’s rejection of the mic is an ego-free moment that speaks of his desire to exit the limelight. And the song’s barely-there existence takes you by surprise in the context of the album’s extremely baggy, self-indulgent running-time.
A bit later, two songs hew closest to the mood, if not the palette, of 808s & Heartbreak. “Real Friends”, with its self-castigation and bleary keys, cannot be interpreted as a work of irony or sarcasm. It’s 3 AM, his extended family lie just out of emotional reach, and West is in no mood to feel sorry for himself. That song’s outro, a heartbroken lullaby, bleeds into the biblical eschaton of “Wolves”, in which West appears to have visions of his immediate family’s death—a telling juxtaposition. Kim Kardashian is Mary; he, Joseph; their children, messiahs, “cover[ed] in lamb’s wool” and “surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves”. One could interpret this as the height of hubris; or, more charitably, as the gloominess of a man facing the gaping maw of the universe and realising, “My time, and that of my family, is finite.”
Perhaps it’s the most explicitly brazen songs on The Life Of Pablo that will be best remembered. If I think of the songs I hum as non sequiturs, the mind turns to “Ultralight Beam”, the gospel beamed in from the 30th century; “No More Parties in LA”, which throws Kendrick Lamar and Madlib beat into a grinning Pseuds Corner episode; and “Fade”, the closing track which mines the greats of Chicago House and finds no sacred cows. But taken as a whole, the album is defined by its most dejected tracks; those that pitch West as a post-human, Doctor Manhattan-like figure. The beauty of Kanye’s life, at least as we perceive it, never sounded so ugly.