There’s a vast ocean between Wire’s Pink Flag and its follow-up Chairs Missing. The first was punctuated by really short punk songs, while the latter was like the difference between night and day, becoming arguably artier. And the songs were generally longer. That difference is apt in comparing the gulf between Iceage’s last album, You’re Nothing, and the new one, Plowing Into the Field of Love. You’re Nothing, which ironically was considered by PopMatters editor Arnold Pan to be akin to the earliest incarnation of Wire, ran a compact 28 minutes and 30 seconds, and much of its material was in the one- and two-minute range.
Plowing Into the Field of Love almost doubles that in length by clocking in at roughly 48 minutes, and having just one two-minute song; the rest are all three or four minutes or, in the case of opening track “On My Fingers”, runs more than five. So Iceage are now extending their reach, slowing things down, fleshing things out with the addition of piano, mandolin, viola, horns and organ to their sound, and come across now as a combination of The Bends-era Radiohead, Nick Cave, Joy Division and the Pogues. So, argue about this if you want, but Plowing Into the Field of Love is debatably artier in direction. Call it Chairs Missing Part II, if you want.
“The Lord’s Favorite” is even notable for an excursion into country music, but its jangly-ness makes it more akin to R.E.M. to these ears than anything else. (Which, as you know, is another parallel to Wire, as Michael Stipe and company did cover “Strange” on Document.) By far, “The Lord’s Favorite”, a tongue firmly planted in cheek tale of debauchery and blasphemy, is the very best thing on the record, so it isn’t surprising that this was the song that introduced the LP to the public earlier in the year. It gallops, it swaggers, it has gusto and pose. But, in saying that, that’s not degrading the rest of the record, which is quite well done. However, “The Lord’s Favorite” will probably be the go-to song when you reach for this on whatever medium you use, and offers a particular respite from its lead-in,
“On My Fingers”, which could almost pass for Wire meets Nick Cave, is a smidge long. That’s the particular stumbling block of Plowing Into the Field of Love. It’s clear that the band is energized and moving into foreign territory (a good thing), but it tends to wear out its welcome around the two-thirds mark, as it becomes apparent that these songs are more in debt to post-punk than a new and original stylistic direction (a not so good thing). That’s not to knock Plowing Into the Field of Love, and asking for Beatles-esque reinvention of music on this release might be demanding too much. However, to a certain degree, Iceage can be overtly evangelical of its sound: students of the years 1978 through 1980 in British music have heard much of the sonic direction of this album already, rendering this a bit of a carbon copy. Still, as a Xerox that has been coloured in with magic marker, it has its likability.
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s vocals are impassioned and furious on this record. He frequently gulps as he’s drawing in whatever air he can obtain to deliver a sense of breathlessness, which is either affecting or annoying, depending on your point of view. However, the delivery does suit the material well. He coughs up a hairball before proclaiming, “How many more days of this stillness?” on “How Many”. He sounds intoxicated before telling us that he’s “Pissing against the moon” since “Whatever I do / I do not repent.” Elsewhere, he sounds downright medicated and serene on the verses of “Stay” before sounding downright sick. So Plowing Into the Field of Love is a singer’s showcase, showing off different textures and sides of Rønnenfelt’s personality. Listening to him is an epiphany. Juxtaposing that against the angular of the material is a richly rewarding experience, and it becomes quite clear that this is the mark of a consummate performer, no matter if, at times, he sounds like a drowning man. That’s just the heaviness and debauchery of the material working in tandem. However, you may differ in opinion, and you have to admire that this aspect of the music is an acquired predilection.
While this is expressively a change in direction for the band, and probably a good one that may yield dividends on subsequent albums, Plowing Into the Field of Love does feel remarkably transitional in nature. This Danish outfit is grappling with the material, and while it does bring forth visceral pleasure, you cannot deny that it does sound remarkably post-punk. Still, you hear a song such as “Cimmerian Shade” where Rønnenfelt gasps and stutters, and you realize how much of a performance piece this is. And the addition of different instrumentation does bring this up a notch – I cannot specifically recall when violas and horns were used on any late ‘70s album of the era.
So this is steps towards a new sound for Iceage, if not a potentially newish sound in an otherwise very well-worn genre, and you have to admit the band for what they pull off. As my PopMatters colleague Matthew Fiander writes of this album, “it sounds like they’re just scratching the surface of these new layers.” This is very much in evidence. It would have been nice to get a few more genre twists and earworm worthy songs such as “The Lord’s Favorite”, but, if this album proves anything, it may need time to marinate, and, certainly, it does offer the possibility of great things for the future. Iceage are on to something, even if that “something” feels intangible and hard to put into descriptive feeling. If anything, it’s a quantum leap forward in terms of change, and, if later moments are kind, this might be considered fodder for discussion as to how much of a Chairs Missing record this is. If so, be excited. Iceage’s 154 and a “Blessed State” (Wire’s best song, in my humble opinion) may be next on the horizon.