[2 March 2009]
There are plenty of albums out there whose greatness lies in the fact that they’re not afraid of being a little inscrutable, albums that challenge the listener just enough so that, when things finally do fall into place after a handful of listens, the effect is that much more dramatic. And then you’ve got albums like From the Top of My Tree—the debut from electronic duo the Bodies Obtained—that manage the inscrutability part well enough, but never, ever start making any sort of sense. You know, the albums that, despite the best of intentions, sort of suck.
The fatal issue with From the Top of My Tree is that it seems to have very little idea of what it wants to be aside from vaguely enigmatic. From the Joy Division reference that serves as their name (and as a constant a reminder that this band is not Joy Division) to the Throbbing Gristle detachment that soaks every song on this record, you’d think the Bodies Obtained were trying to be dark, perhaps even a little menacing. But then you hear the spritely new wave bass and the energetic—though hopelessly overstuffed and confused—synths, elements that aren’t too far removed from today’s more backwards-looking dance-punk.
The Bodies Obtained certainly don’t want you to dance, though: the beats are far from full-bodied, time signatures rarely fall into a uniform 4/4, and the compositions stagger and lurch into walls, never quite finding their footing. So what exactly do they want you to do?
My guess is that, ideally, the faceless duo (they’ve gone out of their way not to reveal their true identities, which seems like a smart move after listening to this album) just wants you to sit back in a darkened room and soak up their existential angst. In other words, they want you to do the obvious thing and actually listen to their music. Problem is, they make this a bit of a difficulty for even the most devout masochist: From the Top of My Tree is very often tuneless dissonance for its own sake.
There have been drunken Facebook messages that were more adept and graceful in conveying heartache and depression. When a tortured soul is allowing you a glimpse into his private hell, you normally don’t think of high-frequency, atonal synths and chimes as a good aural backdrop—but the Bodies Obtained will never stop throwing them at you, with little to no regard for things like melody and polyphony. The individual aural elements of these songs just don’t fit together, though that doesn’t stop them from slamming into each other violently and repeatedly, as if in a vain hope that things will eventually make sense if they just keep trying as often and as forcibly possible. It sounds far more tragically romantic on paper than when it’s desecrating your speakers.
And then we’ve got the vocals. Every song on this album—minus opener “Hear & Believe”, which includes actual (though unremarkable and indistinct) singing—involves electronically fuzzed-out, half-spoken vocals that aim for industrial disaffection but instead fall closer to the overdramatic absurdity of a gothic William Shatner. The lyrical content is similarly awkward, a hollow parody of Ian Curtis’s disconnected, existential confusion. Sure, Curtis’s poetic ability was itself occasionally awkward, but it was an awkwardness that was easily undermined by a chilling emotional honesty. Couplets like this one from Top of My Tree‘s penultimate track “What Did I Lose?”, on the other hand—“Dropped from exhaustion on an island of fear / What did I lose, when I forgot you were here?”—just reek of empty sentiment at best and laziness at worst.
As does much of From the Top of My Tree, unfortunately. What we have here is an album with very few redeeming qualities, an album that doesn’t so much wear its tortured heart on its sleeve as it hides its (allegedly) tortured heart under a ton of pointlessly dissonant loose ends, hoping that you won’t notice that there’s not a whole lot going on at the center of all this chaos. The Bodies Obtained do succeed in creating an aural hell, but so can you if you decide to rake your fingers across a chalkboard; it’s cheaper, you get the same basic effect, and you’ll likely get the same emotional response.