It’s been seven years since My Robot Friend last graced us with new music. That’s a big enough lapse that you could easily be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled upon a brand new band. Truth? You might as well have. All the music on this 11-track collection sounds both fresh and familiar. Sure, you’ve heard synth-heavy, dance-ready music before but how often have you heard it performed with such refreshing clarity?
The record opens with “Goodbye”, which finds us saying farewell to a lover while diving into a new relationship with this music. The sentiment isn’t especially striking, but its presentation is; we feel uplifted despite the lyrics that give us every reason not to be. Meanwhile, “Emancipated Hearts” (featuring Dean Wareham) has an eerie, almost-absent quality. It conjures images of Joy Division playing in an abandoned skate rink. The stirring string figures, a haunting refrain of “he’s gone / he’s gone / he’s gone”, and a melodic flirtation that could either be an homage to that little drummer boy or a pastiche of “Hey Jude” closes out the track, leaving us unsure of what we’ve just heard but deeply assured that we love it.
None of that can prepare you for the pure pop enthusiasm that hits when Andre Williams shows up for his first of four appearances via “Creep”. He sings about “the twenty-third of loneliness” with a confidence that few vocalists can muster on their own material, let alone guesting on someone else’s track. As good as the piece is, it presents a cohesion problem. Whereas the first two pieces have arty, post-punk/New Romantic aspirations, the Williams tunes are made strictly for the dancefloor. The difference isn’t handled subtly, either.
When we return to the dark ‘n’ sexy terrain via the Velvet Underground cover “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore” (featuring Dean & Britta), it’s a welcome reentry. The sheer swagger raises questions about how anything could be so strong. What could hold up next to this? And then it hits us: Perhaps we’re being toyed with. Perhaps we’re being asked to think about this place, what we like and don’t like. However, there’s no denying that Dean & Britta make for extraordinary bedfellows. The follow-up, “A Practical Joke”, reels from their absence despite ultimately holding its own.
Williams turns up for two more pieces, and “Now I Know” feels almost comical next to “A Practical Joke”. And maybe it should. There can be play and humor in the context of an album, even one that draws upon the diverse palette that Open the Book does.
That race for musical diversity scraps any hope of coherence but still leaves us with good music. If you can handle high art next to medium, unrelenting darkness next to unrelenting light, then perhaps this is the record for you. In some ways it’s an album made for a world that no longer appreciates albums. How’s that for having a friend?
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