Putting aside for a moment the rather significant portions of his catalog which are filed most readily under “acquired taste”, Tom Jenkinson’s “Squarepusher” stage moniker is a bit of an enigma in itself. There are a couple of ways to interpret it in light of his stated interest in pushing the boundaries of the machines he composes with: is he pushing discrete blocks of prime elements around on a grid until they turn into art? Or is he running around inside the cubic cells and bashing at the walls with a bass guitar?
Whatever your interpretation, it’s clear that he has a much finer pixel resolution than the rest of us. An early interview with a bewildered greenhorn TV reporter had him talking about manipulating an unsuspecting drum machine into granular synthesis against the manufacturer’s wishes, and a few double-clicks into his composition platform of choice reveals core-level constructs like cosine functions and XOR nodes. Acquired taste or not, using those elements to program something recognizable as music is quite a feat. This Fantastic Voyage-style exploration, which culminated in 2006’s remarkable Hello Everything, has long been one of the defining features of his music—that, and also the smug implication that if you never actually acquired the taste for it, it was because you’re just too dim-witted and possibly a little too used to the Monkees.
However, Jenkinson announced his new album, Just a Souvenir, with a long recount of a dream and/or acid trip in which he watched a seemingly conventional rock band pound out extraordinary otherworldly sounds. As a result, it’s hard not to consider a thematic connection of sorts to 1998’s thoroughly confused Music Is Rotted One Note, in which Jenkinson played a one-man band wearing as many jazz-fusion hats as he could find. Rotted was considerably more aggressive with its mission statement—samplers and drum machines were banished entirely—but the concept of the music originating with blobs of meat is still a common thread. For a guy who writes essays called ‘‘Collaborating with Machines’‘, this is not a trivial detail.
For one thing, Just a Souvenir features more distortion than usual, most notably on “Delta V”, but also peppered everywhere else. This time, however, it often sounds like it’s coming from an everyman’s fuzz pedal instead of some esoteric square wave construction, so whether it’s draped over Jenkinson’s live bass tracks or his keyboard sequences, the notes pulse with the vibrant autonomy of a timbre that maybe, just this once, wasn’t micromanaged.
In addition, the album includes vocals for the first time in years—at least since the pseudo-hit “My Red Hot Car” and the club culture Dilbert strip that was “Generation Shit”, which is an eternity in Squarepusher years. Tongue-in-cheek optimism bubbles up all over the place in “A Real Woman”, but it’s warped through a vocoder, like T-Pain singing Baz Luhrmann’s “Sunscreen” song. It’s a little over the top, sure, but even if he can’t help sounding like an android, at least he’s finally trying to talk to us in English instead of trigonometry. These lines aren’t going to make it into any Facebook profiles, but it’s a start.
Souvenir may feel more organic than most of his other albums—if still somewhat less so than Rotted—but that’s really a tactical matter more than an artistic one. It’s a blob of mysterious breathing goo in a test tube, not a new friend for you to play hopscotch with, and assuming that Jenkinson is capable of forging emotional connections simply because he makes a more familiar album would be a pretty reckless leap of faith. After all, the most climactic moment on Hello Everything was the buzzsaw explosion at the end of “Plotinus”, an unusually long statement of his go-to glitch aesthetic that at best sounded like an array of logic gates pleading for mercy.
So even though it all adds up to Jenkinson’s most human album in years, its most heartening aspect is that it’s still launched from his usual paradigm. This is a good thing: even though there’s nothing as emotive as the sampled drums on “Beep Street”, he has clearly realized that computers don’t have to sound like computers, and now that he has something as digitally virtuosic as Hello Everything under his belt, that’s arguably the most important of his few remaining brave new worlds. If “Iambic 9 Poetry” showed us that he’s capable of nursing a broken heart, Souvenir proves that wasn’t a fluke without actually working up the balls to go there again.
Instead, like some sort of frustrated digital Pinocchio cobbled together from modular synth components, Jenkinson seems to have just decided that he wants to become a real person again, casting off the gleefully elitist Borg existence he usually inhabits. I’m still not convinced he’s better off living in the same head space as the rest of us, but if he’s going to do it despite my misgivings, at least he’s willing to bring the machines along this time around.