Looking for the Imperfect Beat
“Daft Punk beat me to the punch,” Juan MacLean exclaims when describing the artists’ mutual obsession over robots. However, any angst over being a Juanito-Come-Lately seems misplaced. While the French duo’s cross-cosmos adventures find them happily channeling HERBIE in an idyllic quest for Digital Love, MacLean’s explorations are grounded by a gravitational leash that cycles him back past Venus. On a similar elliptical path, MacLean’s music consistently propels towards the outer reaches of electronic experimentation only to be drawn back to live instrumentation; both sine drums and raw breaks chart the way. His cuts percolate with a peculiar dissonance; well-oiled but nervy, beats constantly squirm free from quantized uniformity. This ambivalent friction is the constant characteristic of The Juan MacLean; it is music informed by all things AI, yet mired in familiar, human themes of confusion, imperfection, and impermanence. He is both fascinated by the fantasy future, yet resigned to human limitations. If Daft Punk represents dreams of svelte anime space rockers on boat parties in the Hamptons, then The Juan MacLean is a blunt, vérité close-up of a middle-aged, bald dude making dope tracks up in Medina.
Appropriately, MacLean’s solo debut Less Than Human is a speckled affair. Moods swing between the fractured cold shoulder of “A.D. 2003” and the yearning summer breeze of “Love Is in the Air”. Like a shark’s skin, rub the surface one way and feel the polyurethane bunching “Give Me Every Little Thing”, caress it the other and melt in the Charmin soft “In the Afternoon”. The body is trim enough up top (roughly a half hour), but trunk heavy with a 14-minute closing opus. In other words, Less Than Human is hardly less than human; it is in fact a pretty damn good emulation of being human, right down to its faults: unpredictable behavior, complex textures, unsightly lumps and all.
Which is precisely why Less Than Human is so exceptional: it’s a uniquely ‘realistic’ take on dance music. An early play on forms and expectations is “Tito’s Way”, a mutated disco being as grotesquely charming as the Simpsons’ Blinky the Three-Eyed Fish. On one hand, arpeggiating keyboard licks and a bass line cribbed directly from 54 101 establish a sense of normalcy; every good dance number must have catchy melodies. However, this is offset by the coke on K drumming of Nick Atocha, pounding his hi’s and stuttering every drum fill with the ebullience of a gimpy eight-year-old on his My First Trap Kit. Add to that a bass tone with a case of the Rosarita’s and off-key singing on the bridge, and the track becomes mildly disturbing. Or, precisely why it is so intriguing.
The record is hardly all fun and games, because Less Than Human is anchored in a sense of resignation. MacLean’s likeness of “My Time Is Running Out” to Blade Runner‘s fatalism on his site, is appropriate given the melancholic melody that anchors the song in some pastime paradise garage. “This hasn’t been so great that I don’t mind leaving”, echoes MacLean’s thoughts over a hash haze of broken beat, a bass too corpulent to two-step, and slow motion raindrops over a sin cityscape. This sense of defeat also plays out on the penultimate cut “Crush the Liberation”, wherein DFA cohort Nancy Whang intones the title refrain with a disconcerting nonchalance that contrasts sharply with the upbeat Aconcon-type rhythm and Moog Liberation sprinkles. By the time Whang impatiently snaps, “How much longer is this going to take?” this sole touch of human insolence has smothered the hope of the mechanical track.
Certainly, Less Than Human is not the first electronic album to wear its soul—namely a borderline soul-sucking one—on its sleeve. However, MacLean’s perspective appears fueled by a drug weariness rarely heard in beat music. As Juan himself says, “the album resonates with drug experience”, but it is a more cognizant than dependent one that forms the record’s grim outlook. Life post-addiction has found him crafting music that speaks to both his past surreal life and his present real world. Which brings us back to the initial fascination and skepticism with the open future. Less Than Human is another voyage forward, but concludes that humans are still mucking stuff up. That the music reflects an acceptance of this fate makes the album a fascinating listen, and a challenge to the idea of a perfect beat.