It would be wrong to say I love Adult.‘s Anxiety Always. I may enjoy listening to it but, for a record so coolly distanced and disaffected, love just doesn’t seem the right word. I’d certainly never tell Nicole Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller, the duo behind the electroclash outfit, that I love their music. They would probably just roll their eyes from behind their sunglasses and blow smoke in my face.
Electronic music has been vilified as emotionless, detached, and unconcerned by, or with, the rest of humanity. Anxiety Always embraces these supposedly negative qualities to create a record that is the apotheosis of cool. Kuperus sings in an adenoidal monotone, her attitude a bored sneer. The cracking snare and drill-like buzzes that serve as accompaniment have a distinctly canned quality, one never found anywhere but in a studio.
It may be an extreme effort at cool, nearly a self-parody, but Adult. pulls it off, largely because the songs have such propulsive beats and unshakable hooks. Their tinny synthesizer riffs stick with you like the most insidious of cell-phone rings. If Jean Luc Godard was ever hired to remake Hackers, he’d call up Adult. for the soundtrack.
But live, Kuperus and Miller lose their cool. Trading in some of their keyboards for guitars and accompanied by a third bandmate, they tear back the electroclash curtain to reveal its true inner core: really milquetoast punk.
Of course, thanks to LCD Soundsystem, we already kind of knew that. But whereas LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has amped up punk’s fuzz-distortion with disco’s danceable basslines, Adult.‘s unflagging, midtempo 4/4 drum loops start to drag. The synth trills and flanges are still there on the songs but they’re now buried under a barrage of unimaginative, punk guitar chords. Miller bobs his head and flails away at his instrument like he’s in an early ‘80s LA hardcore outfit, perhaps classic Black Flag. Kuperus suddenly shouts her vocals, rattling off the words like a young Henry Rollins.
In only takes a quick listen to Adult.‘s new EP, D.U.M.E., to realize where this move from the sine wave back to the six-string began. The record’s six tracks feel as if they’re performed by a human rock band rather than the bunch of mod robots we’ve grown so fond of. I can’t blame the duo for trying to branch out, but I can resent their decision to revise the sound of their back catalog. Sure, they run the risk of appearing dated, but it’s often dangerous and rarely successful for artists to go out of their way to adapt to whatever they think is current (think Herbie Hancock’s techno album).
Perhaps this newfound earnestness comes under the pressure of live performance. Perhaps the pair isn’t comfortable standing stock-still, peering down at a rack of keyboards. They may even feel threatened by the likes of LCD Soundsystem, who have outstripped them in popularity. But Adult. shouldn’t be so worried about losing their fans by bringing their suavely detached personas to the stage. It’s certainly worked for other electronic artists. Kraftwerk still sells out concert halls without giving up the convincing shtick of pretending they’re robots. I’ve seen an aging Alan Vega and Martin Rev of Suicide perform a deadpan version of “Ghost Rider” for well over ten minutes; the crowd ate it up. Call it a tautology if you like, but playing it cool hasn’t gone out of style.