Keep your hands free while listening to Maximum Entropy — you’re going to need them to stop your eyes from rolling right out of your head and across the floor. Might want to keep your ears stuffed, too, just to be safe. That may seem counter-intuitive, considering this is ostensibly music, but then listening to Maximum Entropy in hopes of experiencing pleasure is what you’d call counter-intuitive.
I’m not saying it’s the worst album of the year, but it’s certainly the worst album I’ve had to endure all year. You might assume I’m saying this because I’ve never had a soft-spot for relics like this, the kind of cultural flotsam that’s only now come rolling in on the sick and inky tides with all the other ugly reminders of our artistic shipwrecks. But rest assured I’d hate this album’s distinct brand of glimmery, glitzy doom-pop-synthetica salvaged from the ’80s just as fervently whether it was the first wriggling hookworm to come crawling out of the primordial ooze or the last mutant offspring of a once proud race. At first it was the lyrics that got to me. Christ almighty, they’re so dumb they’re liable to leave you sporting a lobotomy scar. And stuffed with faux whimsy and poetry, to boot. “And so you stare into the abyss / To find the feathers from your antique pillow slip / Because you were born to be a catfish,” whimpers Ryan James, combining lyrics he supposes are portentous with what he assumes a breathy and sensual cadence might sound like, not realizing for a second that what he’s choking out sounds only like a particularly imbecilic nursery rhyme.
Sometimes he aspires to pathos but only ever amounts to bathos: the only reason “Loveless Marriage” will ever scare you away from marriage or from your brain (“I’m in a loveless marriage with my sanity” is the refrain of this slime-trailing drag) is because, God, who’d want to live through something that feels as boring and pompous as this song sounds? The album is strewn with these and a hundred other fragments of pseudo-psychological babble (Pascal might want to rise from the grave and sue for defamation; so clumsy a use of the phrase “God shaped hole” as on “Deliver Us From Evil” can’t be anything less than a deliberate bit of character assassination) and feather-weight impressionism. If it’s amusing at first, I can promise it won’t be after you’ve listened to it two, let alone five, times. Parody’s only got so much staying power. Unintentional self-parody? That much less.
At least the lyrics can be written off, a fact even James seems to understand. It’s not often that he puts them front in center in a song, or if he does, it’s not long before he summons up waves of orchestrated hits (my favorite timbre on a keyboard!), chintzy drum machines, glittery synthesizers and volume (always volume!) to drown out whatever whining he’s on about. And it’s there that the real problem lies. Because it’s impossible to ignore the actual music, it’s so damn loud! And so stuffed up by the production, which is all there is. The end result is songs that that are so bright you might imagine you’re about to be blinded (another reason to throw those hands over those eyes and stuff those ears with wax!). The end result is songs that wish, with their low-pitched and cavernous back-beats and throbbing rhythms, to sound like a cut from Röyksopp, but only end up sounding like something cribbed from Owl City’s latest and worst. And sometimes, very rarely, the end result is something a bit faster, just to make certain that you’re not getting bore. As if the creators knew you’d be growing tired of this nonsense, as you most assuredly will. Almost all of it sounds like it was pilfered from the ’80s, ripped right off of the soundtracks for various kinds of porn-for-robots. Really: I’m actually convinced that “Laws of Motion” was the opening song to some kind of neon-drenched nightmare about sexy androids going at it, all hot (cold?) and heavy.
Small blessings, right? In some ways I can’t help but imagine I’d prefer watching that movie to listening to all of this noise. As absurd as it would no doubt be it might, in a roundabout way, be kind of interesting. Horrifying, yes, but better to be horrifying and intriguing than repulsive and boring. Better to be robot porn than this album.