New Release Round-Up, Indie Dancefloor Edition: Janelle Monae, LCD Soundsystem
Let me take just a moment to offer a few quick comments about a pair of records that released last week to considerable fanfare; these are not my usual long-winded reviews, partly because I haven’t fully wrapped my head around either of these albums and partly because they’ve already been written about so much elsewhere that I’m not sure how much insight I could add, but, because they rank among the most talked-about and blogged-about releases of the year, and because I am enjoying both of them very much, I don’t want to let them pass by totally unrecognized.
The two albums in question are The ArchAndroid— by R&B upstart Janelle Monae– and This is Happening, Album #3 by James Murphy, aka LCD Soundsystem, whose Sound of Silver was one of the last decade’s most universally heralded indie classics. Both albums are, to some extent, made for (and about) the dancefloor, and both albums are going over quite well in indie rock circles. Both albums are also very different from one another and, in their own ways, quite impressive.
Monae first. Her ArchAndroid comes with several handy, built-in reference points: She’s currently touring with Erykah Badu, with whom she shares a rather kooky and eccentric view of what soul and R&B music entail, and her album features a spot for Big Boi, which makes sense given how Stankonia‘s molten energy and electric thump seem to fuel parts of this album. More than anyone else, though, I’m reminded of Prince— specifically, the Purple One in all the rambling, ramshackle glory of a record like Sign O’ the Times via the arty structuring of Parade, wherein Monae’s songs veer wildly off the beaten path without ever derailing the album or slowing its momentum, swinging furiously from funk to rock, from hip-hop to European folk, all with the theatrical spin of a Broadway geek and the natural sophistication of a studious composer. What has garnered Monae’s album so much attention is its wide-ranging eclecticism, but what makes it so easy to love is how effortless and graceful it all seems.
That’s particularly surprising given its high-concept structure as a song cycle loosely based around the early sci-fi landmark film Metropolis– just the kind of cinematic focal point that one could imagine inspiring a Prince album, only to be basically discarded once the songs begin to tell their own story, which is somewhat the case with The ArchAndroid, a piece that does make some references to its sci-fi origins but mostly exists on its own terms as its own story, a set of songs that kinda-sorta revolve around themes of self-discovery and, in its second act, the search for love. It’s broad and archetypal in a way that leaves room for plenty of flights of fancy on Monae’s part but occasionally leaves the record feeling like its flash and glamor are in service of themes that are simply stretched too thin here; then again, I’m content calling the album style for style’s sake, and on those terms it’s quite a feast.
LCD’s album, on the other hand, leaves no room for such quibbles; it’s less flashy than The ArchAndroid but arguably more sophisticated, and certainly more contemplative. Actually, it’s rather ingenious, and causes me to rethink some things I’ve written here in the past; I have, at various points, set up a dichotomy between irony on the one hand and sincerity on the other, but This is Happening reveals that dichotomy to be false, as its sense of irony is in service of real honesty. James Murphy is a perpetual hipster, and he writes in sarcastic digs and quips, but what’s amazing about this album is how that hipster jargon translates into a raw and genuine account of– basically– an indie mid-life crisis, a realization that all the sizzle of the dancefloor is ultimately hollow and unfulfilling, that hipster detachment is a form of suicide. Within this context, even the rude frat-boy anthem “Drunk Girls” becomes somewhat existential, and, even in its irony, it’s surprisingly earnest.
The music itself is surprising, albeit in a different way. Murphy has always had the reputation of a sort of indie/dance version of David Byrne, a record-collecting music junkie who turns his music-nerd credentials into hipster chic; with This is Happening, the extent to which Murphy burrows into his stacks of vinyl and incorporates dissimilar elements into his dancefloor-ready constructions is rather astonishing, especially when you consider that, as dance-able and trance-like as this music is, this is basically his most rock-oriented album yet, an album that keeps its pulse in tune with a club-ready beat even as it drifts further and further away from typical dance constructions and into instrumentation and songwriting tropes that are really a lot more in tune with classic art-rock– specifically Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, which casts a shadow over this whole album but never engulfs it, if only because the influences are so many and so thoroughly integrated into Murphy’s own aesthetic.
And if that all sounds a little stuffy and academic, I’ll sign off by noting that, with both of these albums, what keeps me coming back is ultimately just how much fun they are– how they burn through so many high-concept ideas yet remain, in the end, simply joyous to listen to.