Somewhere near the beginning of “Howdy Pardoner”, which is somewhere near the end of Joan of Arc’s Life Like, bandleader Tim Kinsella wonders if “there’s some connection between mass species extinction/and the common production values of ass.” Think about that for a second. Is there? What are “the common production values of ass”, exactly? Mainstream pornography? Boring sex? Intimacy made trite by media oversaturation? Two out of three or all of the above? I don’t think it really matters. What does matter is that Kinsella doesn’t seem to like sex much, or is at least more interested in its banalities than its pleasures. This matters because it reflects the infuriating disinterest of nearly everything produced under the Joan of Arc banner, and Life Like, while a little different, isn’t really different enough.
One area where it does depart — somewhat — is its sound. Mercifully absent are the scattershot econo-electronics that distinguished JOA’s earlier work; in its place is a conventional guitars-and-drums setup fused by Kinsella and company’s trademark mathematics, and implemented with the (faint) formalism that emerged in their work following 2008’s Boo! Human. Although they’re still as Dada-on-downers as always, a modicum of song structure shines through their usual avant-emo, especially on the ten-minute-plus opener “I Saw the Messed Blinds of My Generation”, which has the audacity to bear a catchy riff.
What remains, though, is Kinsella’s dry, stubborn, smarty-pants intellectualism, the most divisive feature of a very divisive group. Life Like is as verbally overstuffed as anything else they’ve made; more syllables are forced into each verse than each verse can necessarily accommodate, often leading to unnatural stressing (as in “Still Life”, when Kinsella criticizes the wearing of “a Band-Aid as an ac-ces-sor-y”) and general mental overkill. It’s more than a little affected, but that’s okay, because nothing is real anyway, right? Or something like that. Also affected are the words themselves, which, while more grounded than, say, Thom Yorke’s flighty abstractions, carry a cheap and easy insincerity. He declares in “Deep State” that “We, in our own way / We are indie,” which Kinsella is far too old and good a guitarist to have to say. It doesn’t help that JOA’s sense of humor seems limited, as always, to spoonerisms and mumbled irony.
Like Kinsella’s stated disdain for ass, these traits hardly read like they’d be catnip to anyone in particular, but apparently they have been, if 15 years and going strong on Polyvinyl is any indication of having an audience. And really, of course they have an audience. Everything JOA does is so pointedly, pedantically anti-bourgeois that theirs might be the only music left for people embarrassed by music. (Even the crassest sound artists generally have an interest in beauty and spectacle, even if it’s a deconstructive interest.) It is, in other words, a new kind of bourgeois: it’s a status marker for the liberation from such vulgarities as hooks, feelings, and clarity of thought. Even Life Like’s token heartfelt interlude, “Life Force”, can’t just be heartfelt, turning into a parody of itself with “I can’t help but imagine you capable / Of helping me access this aforementioned good thing” — a parody far too remiss to be particularly amusing.
Life Like — which is, by the way, the second JOA release this year, the first being a not-bad guitar drone compilation called Oh Brother — exhibits JOA’s recalcitrance but doesn’t exemplify it. Most of the songs are knotty grooves, and sometimes, those grooves are kind of catchy, although they’re often compromised by Kinsella’s perpetually-adolescent whine (which was always far better suited to Cap’n Jazz’s cathartic punk); unsurprisingly, the largely instrumental “Messed Blinds” is probably the best track. A lot of bad music is plenty catchy, though. To give Kinsella a pass just because Life Like is begrudgingly more melodic would be unfair to the hardworking musicians everywhere who dare to have a better attitude towards sex, music, and everything else than he can ever seem to manage.