[19 February 2014]
Following a summer of touring for her second studio album, W, Janine Rostron, the singer, producer, and multimedia polymath behind Planningtorock, legally changed her first name to Jam. The choice to have a non-gender-specific name surely comes across as fitting for those familiar with Planningtorock’s deliberately androgynous vocals and outspoken views on gender and identity politics. Of course, political performance was not the force behind W‘s universal acclaim. The album was hailed as an audacious work of avant-garde electronica, suffused with ingenuity and surreal melodrama at every turn. “The Breaks”, with its accompanying music video, felt like witnessing the private, daydreamy longings of a genderless extraterrestrial exploring the possibilities of romantic role-playing. The funky, bleating sax and pizzicato strings only enhanced the abstract affair of Rostron’s opaquely seductive vocals and obscurantist passion. Like much of the album, it was weird and awesome.
The press release for Rostron’s third full-length, All Love’s Legal, states that the album is a “refreshingly direct statement of political intent”. Adverb aside, you’ve got no argument here. Almost every single song on All Love’s Legal delivers some sort of message about gender, sexuality, and Rostron’s desire to tear down the demarcations and hierarchies that arguably imprison them. Of course, if the album was exclusively an investigation into socially constructed gender roles, it would be a thesis for female studies or, if we’re being intellectually generous, queer theory. Perhaps both mercifully and lamentably, it is neither of those things. For all the political posturing and watered-down critical theory, All Love’s Legal is still a dance record, with Rostron switching out the strange, syncopated arrangements of W for thumping basslines and sultry horns. One of the album’s more successful tracks and a first-half set piece, “Human Drama” is carried by a brash, classical-sounding synth, rendering the pizzicato strings muted grace notes. In between said synthy histrionics, Rostron sings “Give me a human drama / And understand that gender’s just a game / Give me human drama / All sexuality is not the same / Give me a human drama / The personal is so political.” Those six lines could easily sum up the entirety of All Love’s Legal‘s much-ballyhooed political message.
Fortunately, the instrumental arrangements don’t indulge the same unabashed reductivism. The album incorporates elements of dance music, ‘80s pop, and even stray bits of experimentalism. “Beyond Binary Lines” is a perfect example of this, with multiple instrumental “acts” entering and exiting like a procession of performative art sequences. Instead of hammering you into the ground with its overt politicization, its divergent soundscapes have an evocative, allusive relationship to the song’s title.
The album’s closing track, “Patriarchy Over and Out”, is a skittering blitz of manic violins and funky horns; it’s just the right mix of idiosyncratic pop and feminist anthem, with Rostron’s vocals pitched deep into pangender territory as she chants imploringly, “I don’t want to wait / Patriarchal life, you’re out of date / Patriarchal life, get out of the way.” Released in the summer of 2012, this was reportedly the track that inspired Rostron to make this whole album in the first place. And the song does stand alone as an aggressive, visceral call-to-arms against the masculine social order. With its humming spontaneity and ardent polemic, it feels like it should have been the lead track.
The problem is, it’s the last, buried under 11 other songs that reinforce the same fundamental message that gender and sexuality should exist on a spectrum rather than within the rigid structure built to support the reviled patriarchy. As anybody who’s heard a few classic protest songs knows full well, if an artist wants to deliver her convictions with impact, they must be submerged in lyrical artistry: resplendent images, secretly painful metaphors, and all the other shimmering contraptions of guile and alchemy at a writer’s and lyricist’s disposal. But more than anything, it’s got to be personal. Private. That’s what made W so bizarrely amazing. It was like tumbling into someone else’s bong-rip-clouded imagination, with all sorts of psychedelic drama and grotesquely bedecked interior landscapes. With each repetition of “I break too easily” and “We break too easily” in “The Breaks”, Rostron inflects her desperate, passionate voice with some added nuance, thereby further entrancing you in her deeply, clearly personal surrealist-opera. Because All Love’s Legal is so straightforward, so obvious, it can never capture your imagination with the charismatic subjectivity that is the province of the best musicians and artists. And without that enigmatic quality, the music can never transport you. And all art, even the politically progressive kind, has to transport you.