[13 October 2008]
More than once this year, we’ve seen some of the great bands of our era quit trying to reinvent themselves and simply focus on playing to their strengths—those same strengths that built their substantial audiences in the first place. R.E.M.‘s Accelerate is an incredible little return to the energy and the pace that defined them in the ‘80s, delivered with the benefit of wisdom, while Metallica has gone back to good, old-fashioned thrashing in a way not seen since perhaps ...And Justice for All. In the age of instant access and availability, it’s almost pointless for a band to reinvent itself for any reason other than boredom. Pretty much every permutation and mutation of every style or combination of styles has been done at this point, and a band that tries to stretch itself into realms of sound that have already been explored by someone else is, more often than not, bound to sound outclassed. Sure, there are exceptions, any number of which we could immediately name, but the truth is, a band’s experimentation simply isn’t going to open up a certain fanbase to a new genre the way it once did.
In this way, perhaps, the Legendary Pink Dots would seem to be ahead of their time.
It’s not that they’ve never expanded their boundaries—on the contrary, they’ve dabbled in industrial noise, pure folk, synth-pop, and everything in between—rather, the seasoned Pink Dots listener always has a pretty accurate idea of what to expect when putting on a new album for the first time. Of course, when you’re talking about a band that’s putting out its 26th album, one must assume that they’ve pretty much ceded the capacity for surprise at this point.
As such, it would be easy to say that Plutonium Blonde is very much what you would expect from a Legendary Pink Dots release. It’s heavy on psychedelic swirls and whooshes; it’s largely subdued and thoughtful; Edward Ka-Spel puts his trademarked lisp to use in sinister, mournful, and satirical ways; and it’s easy to be swept away. In this way, Plutonium Blonde is an utter success, in that it represents the sound of the Legendary Pink Dots in every conceivable way, and it does so with the strength and conviction necessary to take one or two steps out of the band’s own predefined box. Taken outside such a reflexive context, however, there are some issues to take with the Dots’ latest.
For one, while the sound may remain consistent, the delivery isn’t always as graceful as it has been in the past. Opener “Torchsong” is a seven-minute trudge through scraping knives and buzzing synths, a torturously dark piece that speaks very little of the quiet contemplation to follow it. Ka-Spel’s nearly rapped spoken word almost saves the piece, but it’s simply too dank and lasts too long to inspire any sort of confidence in the album. “My First Zonee” might be a smirking take on our antisocial obsession with technologically-based trinkets, but the tone of the song is a little bit too precious to be taken seriously. Sure, it wouldn’t be a Pink Dots song without a few hints of darkness seeping through, and they do, but it’s just a little too cutely delivered to carry any sort of lasting appeal. Similar sentiments could be said for the short and slightly too sweet “Mailman”, whose banjo simply sounds out of place. As a standalone entry on a mix tape or as part of a compilation, it could shine, but on an album so steeped in acid wash, it’s merely a sore thumb.
The strengths of Plutonium Blonde lie in the quiet moments, the moments where Ka-Spel and company can choose to fill the empty spaces with sound or silence, with words or the unsaid. “Oceans Blue” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music the Dots have ever put to tape, consisting largely of periodic synth chords over the sound of an idling vehicle of some sort. Ka-Spel offers “Do you read me loud and clear? / The sea sings sweetly in my ear” over this backdrop, as we’re lulled into complacency just enough to be startled every time the calm is cruelly ripped away. “An Arm and a Leg” is just the sort of cacophonous spoken word that the Dots are likely to stretch into a 20-minute live masterpiece, and “Rainbows Too?”, which may or may not be a sequel of sorts to the Tear Garden (Ka-Spel’s collaboration with Skinny Puppy’s cEvin Key and Dwayne Goettel) classic “You and Me and Rainbows”, shines for its ten-minute duration with Key-esque synth work and a beautiful break highlighting the underrated Niels Van Hoornblower’s saxophone.
Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the otherworldly closer that is “Cubic Caesar”, whose synths recall the Nintendo classic Metroid and whose words convey utter boredom and personal stasis. “I watch paint dry”, Ka-Spel sings, and you hear a man broken, an off-kilter, heartbreaking rumination on regret told in right angles and electronic clicks.
Such is the majesty of the Legendary Pink Dots—while there is no prescribed formula to their work, what they deliver always sounds like themselves. While Plutonium Blonde may falter in places, it’s no different. This is the Pink Dots through and through, and whether you take to it may well depend entirely on whether you’ve taken to them before. Those who have will find treasure to be uncovered; those who have not may well find an impenetrable wall of obscurity.