[29 July 2012]
PopMatters Music Editor
Laetitia Sadier’s career has been nothing if not consistent. In its two decades together, her former band, Stereolab, was as steady and reliable as any group in the alt-rock era, hardly ever straying from its trademark futurist sound and almost always realizing its utopian-pop vision with a high level of creativity and quality. What’s more, Stereolab was unwavering in its commitment to using its pop culture platform to articulate a lefty political consciousness, espousing the same beliefs when it was on its way up, while it was a zeitgeist-defining act in the mid-‘90s, and after it was past its prime.
On Silencio, the second full-length released under her own name, Sadier picks up where Stereolab left off without skipping a bouncy, space-rock beat. While her first album on her own, 2010’s The Trip, was more personal and immediate, this latest project is lush and fully rendered in a way that recalls Stereolab’s records; in fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find much to separate what’s on Silencio from the band’s latter-day output or to differentiate her latest batch of vocals from the thought-provoking lyrics she’s delivered throughout her career. If there’s any element of surprise to Silencio, it’s that this effort suggests that Sadier didn’t get as much credit for molding Stereolab’s musical profile as she should have, since conventional wisdom tended to give Tim Gane most of the plaudits for being the mastermind behind the outfit’s space-age bachelor-pad aesthetic.
As was the case with Stereolab’s albums, Silencio is deftly sequenced, a nice mix of viscerally appealing, intellectually stimulating sci-fi pop numbers interspersed with more atmospheric pieces that invite you to chill out as they burrow into your subconscious. By frontloading her most overtly political tracks on Silencio, Sadier grabs your attention from the start and proves yet again that no one can quite give voice to a political treatise with such élan and panache. What would otherwise come off like heavy-handed sloganeering or dry, tedious theory in the hands of others is earworming consciousness-raising when Sadier is preaching her gospel. On the ethereal opener “The Rule of the Game”, Sadier’s cool vocals sugarcoat her take on class struggle, as she coos, “The ruling class / Neglects again responsibility / Overindulged children drawn to cruel games, pointless pleasures, impulsive reflexes / A group of assassins” to a starry soundscape. In the case of the soaring “There Is a Price for Freedom (And It Isn’t Security)”, it’s hard to decide what stands out more: its provocative title, the heady ideological critique—“Image / Reflected back from society,” announces Sadier’s thesis here—or the grand beauty of its swooping synth-and-strings arrangement. The thing is, with Sadier, it’s always a package deal, in which the medium and the message go hand-in-hand.
Call these tracks protest songs for our Occupy age if you like, but it’s more like the times have caught up with Sadier, not the other way around, since she’s been doing this for almost 25 years now. More aggressive and to the point in both its approach and agenda is “Auscultation to the Nation”, which brings to mind the bristling pop of the earliest Stereolab singles, just cleaned up and shined up. While the finer points of global economic collapse (“Rating agencies, financial markets, and the G20s / Were not elected by the people / In the name of what / Are we letting them govern our lives?”) don’t usually lend themselves to being the subject matter of a could-be indie single, they might as well be the makings of a commercial jingle here, thanks to Sadier’s melodic delivery and the ping-ponging guitars and keyboards. And when Sadier smoothly croons the word “democracy” at the end of her political statement, it rings as clearly and powerfully as any punk screed or working class rock rallying cry.
That’s not to say that everything is so serious on Silencio, because there are plenty of good vibes and easy listening on it that do their intellectual work in more subliminal ways. “Find Me the Pulse of the Universe” and “Moi Sans Zach” bottle up the lounge-pop sound that made Stereolab’s atmospheric compositions the soundtrack of choice for many a retro-hip cocktail party, with the breezy vocals and brisk, strummed guitars coming almost too easy to Sadier and company. Even more impressive is the way Sadier recovers the insistent pop chops that sometimes got lost in late-era Stereolab’s sonic explorations, whether it comes in the form of the electro-acoustic shuffle of “Between Earth and Heaven” or the jaunty jangle of the relatively straightforward rock nugget “Next Time You See Me”, the one track Gane appears on here. Best of all, though, is the space-funk of “Fragment pour le Future de l’Homme”, which uses a chugging, irresistible groove to sneak in a meditation on history.
All in all, Silencio offers pretty much everything you could expect and hope from Sadier, making long-time fans both wistful for her past accomplishments as well as eager for what’s yet to come. When you think about it, there can be no more fitting tribute to an artist whose vision has appealed as much to nostalgia as to what the future holds.