As electronic music has further integrated into the sounds of modern rock, rap, pop, soul and even jazz, many musicians have begun to deal with a sweeping paranoia over the digital realm. Even respected electronic artists have begun engaging in a backlash against computerized society; Daft Punk, for instance, worldwide ambassadors for contemporary French house, returned to the sounds of analog disco for 2013’s Random Access Memories, their first album in eight years. Doldrums, the acclaimed musical project from producer Airick Woodhead, doesn’t go quite that far with The Air Conditioned Nightmare, but from the title alone it’s clear that the cultural fear of a cold digital world haunts even the dreams of electronic music masterminds. Ironically, his synthetic sounds get across the point of The Air Conditioned Nightmare better than he does himself.
Musically, The Air Conditioned Nightmare is bold and evocative. “HOTFOOT” suggests a rapturous return to the primordial with swampy synth bass, a shifting tribal beat and Woodhead’s sinister, technophobic lyrical plays: “If I can’t pull myself back up / I’m gonna go deeper down into the mud.” As the first single and the album’s opening track, “HOTFOOT” sets a precedent for brash electronic dance music that the rest of The Air Conditioned Nightmare mostly avoids except for the swirling industrial groove of “My Friend Simjen”, the funky disco of “Industry City” and ambient house jam “Loops”. Instead, Woodhead is more characteristically timid, especially on songs like the safely psychedelic “Blow Away” and “Video Hostage”, where he creates atmosphere by looping delicate vocal samples. Radiohead comparisons are particularly apt on songs with more subdued electronics that allow Woodhead to really explore his vocal theatricality: downbeat highlight “We Awake”, beautifully poignant closing track “Closer 2 U” and the quietly searing “Funeral for Lightning”.
Lyrically, though, Woodhead has little sense for subtlety, and the album’s unrelentingly dark and serious tone sometimes renders his lyrics ineffectual by being overly figurative, particularly with absurdly abstract phrases like “holographic Jesus” (from “Blow Away”) and “fluorescent plastic whim” (from “Funeral for Lightning”). Whatever poetic sentiment Woodhead is laboring for, the results are hit-and-miss and more often than not establish a pretentiousness otherwise not present in his smooth, accessible music. Flowery and euphemistic aren’t the worst things lyrics can be, of course, but in tackling such common themes of modern artificiality, there’s little place for further contrived sentiment.
Still, The Air Conditioned Nightmare deserves credit as a sprawling exploration of modern synthetic life through artificial drum sounds, arpeggiated synthesizers and Woodhead’s own haunting voice, the sole human element that defines the album. More than the lyricism, it’s Woodhead’s identity in the songwriting and performances that tie his thematic knots for him. Even if his subject isn’t the most novel, The Air Conditioned Nightmare bends electronic conventions in unique ways, taking the stilted balance out of modern dance music and replacing it with a menacing ambience to more nuanced effect. If the poetry of his words doesn’t match the elegance of his music, it doesn’t matter too much; the effect still lands, and Woodhead’s chilling croon over the stormy, volatile electronics he commands speaks more than his words ever could anyway.