The duo Field Music crafts pop music thick with complex arrangements and lush harmonies, propelled by good beats and amazing drum sounds. Somehow they make it all sound cold and severe, emotionally forbidding.
Not that Field Music are black metal or anything—any random five-second snatch of Plumb, the British band’s fourth album, would intrigue any random Genesis fan. But Plumb is pop music distilled into its composite moments. Beats and guitar riffs pop up, sound fantastic, and then skedaddle to make way for the band’s next bright idea. Brothers David and Peter Brewis weave their voices through brisk key changes. They rarely sing a hook more than twice. In fact, closing anthem “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing” could be their artistic manifesto. You notice when they repeat the line “I’m repeating about a new thing”, because they’ve spent so little time repeating anything else.
Partly this is because the 15 songs are so short. Most clock in under three minutes; the longest, all 3:59 of “A New Town”, actually luxuriates in its four-bar groove for a while, but that’s rare. Now, Field Music obviously took some trouble making this album. The sound is pristine, an audiophile’s dream, and the songs are so well-recorded you could diagram the entrance of every instrument. (Speaking of diagrams: some bands decorate their liner notes with art or nudity, but Field Music’s last album featured their recording studio’s layout and equipment list.) But here’s the trouble, if indeed it’s trouble—the Brewis brothers rarely pause to let you appreciate the fruits of their labor. It’s offputting. Whether they distrust their own material, or whether some particularly terrifying aesthetic makes them mistrust the concept of “pleasure” in general, they’re always pushing you on on ON, to something new.
Take the song “Choosing Sides”, an epic at 3:12. The song opens with doodly synth-brass (I think), Wendy Carlos meets Steve Winwood, then erupts into a martial 7/8 groove. Because this is a pop song, Field Music sings a verse and what must be a chorus, the great-but-hard-to-scan “I want a different / Idea of what better can be / Which doesn’t necessitate / Having more useless shit!” Then, because they’re feeling generous, the brothers sing a second verse, this time with gorgeous overdubbed “la-la-la”s and “oooh”s, along with a second chorus, only this time they’re against “treating somebody else like SHIIIIT”.
At this point, most bands would flesh out their song by adding a bridge or a solo; most feeling humans would then proceed to repeat the chorus, possibly twice. This is how you convince listeners you’ve written a fine song. The self-effacing chaps in Field Music decide to go off on a tangent, morphing their riff into a 4/4 sorta-funk coda, their interlocking voices wailing “I won’t get into it now!” Of course they won’t. A minute of that and they’re done.
That’s about as conventional as the song structures get. Messing around with song form, the Brewises accomplish a couple different things. Their musical abruptness suits their lyrics; in “Choosing Sides”, Field Music might be emulating the abruptness of arguments. Spread over the course of an album, their abruptness also conditions you to focus on each remarkable little moment as it arrives, because it probably won’t arrive again.
But there’s a flipside to that conditioning. Since you know Field Music won’t expound on most of their ideas for more than a minute, it’s easy to simply give up on caring about them altogether. The Beach Boys’ Smile (to pick a completely unfair comparison) shifts sound and texture constantly, but its themes and hooks repeat and climax, and it plays with listeners’ expectations. Brian Wilson knew how to make his complex music resonate with listeners. Field Music’s sonic shifts, impressive though they are, never peak and rarely pay off in any communicative sense. If the band cares about listeners’ expectations, they take pains to hide it. They might be exploring the aesthetic implications of stereo demonstration records.
Still, if you hear Plumb as one long disjointed work rather than as a collection of standalone statements, it’s got points in its favor. For one thing, it’s short. 35 minutes is just sitcom length, and this thing definitely has better production values than Whitney or something. Even if you land on a fairly nothing song like “From Hide and Seek to Heartache”, you still find memorable sonic landmarks—strings, lovely harmonies, a pounding piano. These touches are glistening mirages of musical connection, whereas the handful of fine standalone songs—“A New Thing”, “A New Town”, “Just Like Everyone Else”—are refreshing oases. But that metaphor makes Plumb sound like a barren emotional desert, and it’s not. Intellectually and musically, it’s more like a rose bush in winter: thorny, twisty, and hinting at tantalizing beauty. The more time you spend with this album, the easier it is to get caught.