The Legendary Pink Dots’ first album, Brighter Now, released in 1980, remains a remarkable piece of work. It’s a smart record filled with quietly disturbing imagery about disaster-filled relationships, screwed-up self-doubt and political paranoia. The album was a huge side-step away from the mainstream, signaling the band’s willingness to color outside the lines, to be proud of their pretentiousness and confident in their ability to create definitive electronic power-punk-pop in Pink Floyd / David Bowie-type fashion.
Throughout their ever-changing, exciting career, the Dots continued to refuse to stick to pop conventions, never quite building songs more than epic recorded poetry, designed to freak-out the listener in a decidedly simplistic way, evoking images of the 1960s psychedelic wayfarer nodding his head to the groove entirely unaware of the intricate messages floating in and out of his brain inside that groove.
The Dots’ latest release, All the King’s Men follows this trend. After 20-odd years of cultivating their sound, the band has strung together some of the most daring and dangerous stanzas of their career, in what is intended as a reaction to September 11 and it’s aftermath.
The poetry remains as deftly caustic and hellishly sharp as ever, with the band thankfully steering well clear of stream-of-consciousness rambling and ranting, instead to build genuinely affecting images of lost hope, broken dreams and political and emotional scarring. The album seeks not to represent the thoughts of the majority—there’s no Angry American sentiment here for the flag-raisers to hide behind, it’s just a personal response to what is for many, an ultra-personal event.
The Dots have no answers, and they don’t ask that many questions either, choosing to simply react, to bounce ideas around, field tension and defy tradition. In a kind of hopeless hopefulness, with All the King’s Men, the band strings together long moments of instrumental solitude, sometimes repeating the same chords over and over for more than five minutes, among moments of cautious awakening—what exactly happened on September 11, not to the world at large, but to the individual, to me? And speaking from their own personal experience in the wake of the tragedy, the Dots seek to awaken in their listeners the very same thinking.
All the King’s Men opens with the intense “Cross of Fire” featuring solid ideas of conformity in the face of despair—“I’ll walk the line / I’ll hug the curve / And look away with blind respect”, band leader Edward Ka-Spel sings, before presenting the image of the American flag as the “cross” itself (“Cross of Fire / Splashed on a courthouse / Cross of fire / Waved from a truck”). Ka-Spel demonstrates his desire here, to be as forthright with his audience as he can, speaking of white sheets and corrupt judges, the feeling of having no choice but to go with the flow in such political and social turmoil when the average Joe has little say in the way of governmental response to catastrophe.
These kinds of images are scattered throughout the album. Cackling crows, hearts of stone, crossed fingers and black arms signify the anger and despair of September 11, while questions of connection and placation are also raised in seeming protest against our return to normalcy regardless of the whisper of war in the air.
The beautiful “The Warden” contains the album’s bravest moments, with direct references to the Muslim faith. “Now down boy / Turn to Mecca / Keep those eyes down to the floor”, Ka-Spel sings in dramatic monotone in a song referencing those responsible for hijacking the planes that crashed in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC and the direct link between faith and fear. “The Day Before it Happened” features a similar sentiment, though from the perspective of the attacked. I’ll “fix my teeth” and “dye my hair” later on, says this simple idea of our constant ignoring of living each day as though it will be our last.
Ultimately, All the King’s Men confronts individual human issues relating to the disaster of September 11, feelings of mortality and immortality, despair, regret and, maybe, a little hope. The Dots, with this album, retain the subdued beauty of Brighter Now while establishing themselves as a continuing and relevant force on the Indie scene, producing a poetic and truly unique piece of work backed by unassuming electronic beats and bizarre cyber-melodies that will effortlessly shock, endear, frighten and comfort.