[12 February 2008]
Do You Like Rock Music? is All That You Can’t Leave Behind. It’s Die Another Day, it’s Armageddon. It’s the Emperor’s new clothes, it’s pomp and circumstance, signifying nothing. It’s every action movie that tries to be a drama, it’s every book that stretches 30 pages of plot into 500 pages of exposition and detail. It is as universal as it portends to be, and it is, ultimately, empty.
Debating the merits of its predecessors is unnecessary; there’s plenty to like about anything that goes for broke in its attempts to appeal to an audience regardless of whether there is any honest-to-god substance behind the bombast. It’s easy to get sucked in to a media spectacle that crashes, bangs, and explodes in all the right ways, and if it leaves the audience feeling pleased and satisfied when it’s over, nobody’s going to care that there’s no true emotional heart. One could call discs like Do You Like Rock Music? popcorn albums. They’re uplifting, joyous, earnest, and utterly forgettable.
In a way, British Sea Power brings such judgments on itself via the employment of such a cheeky, challenging little title. The implication, of course, is that if you do like rock music, you’ll like this particular collection of songs. The band set out to make a Big Rock ‘n’ Roll Album (with a decidedly art-rock bent), a grand gesture that would put them on the map, perhaps sharing space in critical discussions of merit with such grandiose artists of the moment as The Arcade Fire or The National, or even in the pop airwaves with the latest high-aspirationed U2 single. On a purely technical level, they have utterly succeeded. The guitars ring free and true, underneath impassioned, direct vocal lines and atop a rhythm section that can’t help but propel itself forward, up and away into the great unknown.
Its ambition is wonderful, then, but what of the thoughts that inspired that ambition?
The introduction (“All In It”) and epilogue (“We Close Our Eyes”) bookend the album perfectly, the former getting the listener ready to be swept away by the grand majesty within, while the latter mirrors that beautiful introduction, bringing the album full-circle as it should. Even the first track portends well for the album, as “Lights Out for Darker Skies” is a big loud rock ‘n roll song that inspires us to feel… something. Anything. It inspires us to be inspired, its refrain imploring us to “dance like sparks from the muzzle”, a poetic image only implying the gunshot that inspires our action.
Perhaps it is that mere implication that is the album’s greatest downfall (or its genius, depending on who you ask). It doesn’t come much bigger than this / You see a point and you make a wish… Up there toward being a bore / Up there toward the apocalypse sings the thin-voiced Hamilton on “A Trip Out”, and he sounds awfully excited about something but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it is. First single “Waving Flags” is a musical triumph, complete with a choir, lots of drum rolls, and Yan putting on his best David Bowie and singing about our limited time here on earth and… what, exactly? Waving flags? Drinking? There are lots of big words being tossed around like “astronomical” and “the Carpathians” to add to the epic feel of the whole thing, but where’s it all going?
Even the more tender moments fall victim to the same traps. Penultimate track “Open the Door” asks the repeated question of “How you gonna live with that?”, but never says what “that” is. It seems obvious that there is something intensely personal going on in the song, but it never feels personal because Hamilton never lets us in on any of the details. Toss in an instrumental with a ridiculous title like “The Great Skua”, and there’s suddenly enough pretense blowing around to shift the mood from confounding to frustrating.
Perhaps the lack of details, the lack of subject matter in the presence of great feeling, is what will ultimately draw people to Do You Like Rock Music?. These are songs about nothing and everything, songs that anyone could find deep, personal meaning in if they looked hard enough. The problem is that the universality is calculated, as if such an album is exactly what British Sea Power set out to make. The best statement albums are those inspired by some life-changing, personal event; the aura of death that surrounded Funeral, for example, or (in a converse, intimate sort of way) the breakup that inspired Sea Change. Contained within these albums are true-life experiences that listeners can relate to via the artists who experienced them. The greatest fault of Do You Like Rock Music? is that it is a statement album without a statement, only a response. How are we supposed to relate to that?