Silicon is an exposé of the superficiality of our technology-dependent lives, but does such a good job it feels superficial itself.
Kody Nielson is “listening.” He knows your pain, and wants you to ”never be lonely". That’s why he’s offered you his Personal Computer, a debut album featuring ten excursions in future-soul-funk that chart how 21st century technology has stepped in as your best friend and soulmate at precisely the moment your real friends and soulmates have been pushed many steps away.
As your best friend this technology provides you with the perfect excuse to withdraw into yourself and remain locked in your apartment. Accordingly, Nielson invites you via the title-track opener to “Close the windows / Draw the curtains” in his most soothingly enticing voice, the smooth electro-fuzz and gossamer synths of the chorus reinforcing his seductions with the reassurance that a life of isolation and alienation is now perfectly viable given the superior comforts afforded by your “personal computer". It “knows what [you’re] thinking” and boasts “eyes never blinking”; that is, it promises never to let you down or reject you in the way other fallible humans inevitably will.
Subsequent numbers like “Cellphone” and “God Emoji” trade in similar themes. During the high-pitched, digitized chiming of “Cellphone,” Nielson’s protagonist confesses that he’s “leaving in the morning / Probably gone before you wake”. Even though he’s “all alone”, his technology-induced estrangement from other people means that he “[doesn’t] want to call” the significant other he’s left behind, a reluctance that inflects the track’s syncopated keys and neurotic bass with a subtly pathetic absurdity.
Likewise, the plastic R&B of “God Emoji” has a sultry Nielson breathing such admissions as, “Don’t want to go out on a Saturday night”. Amidst the spacey airiness of its verses, he advises us to “Fly into the Sun / I’ll be by your side” and that “We will feel no pain”, these words representing the “god emoji” of the Digital Age who, as an aggregation of Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, et al., will decide everything for us, from our homework to our personal lives.
Of course, Personal Computer isn’t witness to a Nielson who genuinely or sincerely advocates a descent into complete reliance on technology. The aforementioned hymns to smartphones and the internet are all leavened with a palpable irony that transforms their computer-funk into a knowing satire of today’s Apple-world. Not only that, but there are several numbers on the album which allude to Nielson being dangerously submerged in his own iPhone-aided narcissism. For example, in the echoing, cavernous synth-pop of “Submarine” his FX-disfigured voice urges, “Follow me / To the sea”, while the dial-tone opening of “Cellphone” has him invoke the unenviable process of drowning when he declares, “My body’s in the water / It’s colder than we think”.
In both of these cases, water serves as a metaphor for Nielson’s separation from a more traditional or natural current of human life, and for his immersion in a kind of virtual or simulated non-life. Yet even with these lyrical hints to the pitfalls of technology dependence, most of Personal Computer’s critique of said dependence is embodied in its glittery, streamlined pop, which exploits a range of spliced genres from "posthuman" soul (“Love Peace”) to fleet funk (“Burning Sugar”) in order to highlight the manufactured falsity of a life uploaded to the internet. The thing is, even though such careful feats of musical engineering as the discoing “Little Dancing Baby” or the slinking “I See Paradise” perform a sterling job of expressing this falsity, their success entails that the music of Personal Computer sounds a little false itself. This ultimately dilutes its resonance, at least insofar as the listener is denied something to which he or she can truly relate on a personal or emotional level.
That said, there’s more to the album than its parodic harnessing of soul, funk and electro so as to parody a ‘Communication Age’ in which people don’t really communicate anymore. What gives it an additional layer of significance is its later revelation that, underlying Nielson’s retreat into the faux embrace of pixels, was a prior separation from someone or ones who once meant something to him. We hear of this in the elegiac “Blow”, where a mournful verse has him regret, “I said goodbye / You were leaving” and where a subtly pounding chorus announces, “You’ve gone and blown it all away / What could I do / What could I say”. Here, the track’s acoustic drums and analog bass indicate that the interpersonal schism it recounts is more fundamental to Nielson’s current situation than the PC-fixation which follows. As such, it artfully makes the point that our smartphone and social-media addictions are merely symptoms of a much deeper malaise caused by social, economic and political factors.
It’s this concealed message that saves Personal Computer from being little more than a superficial if enjoyable romp through various retooled genres of the ‘70s. Through such lines as the “They pray for people losing / And prey on people watching” observation of “Personal Computer” and “Dope”, its colorful blend of synth pop, R&B and funk ends up by asserting that today’s "advanced" technology capitalizes on the rampant loneliness and individualism characterizing modern society. Moreover, this technology provides just enough in the way of pain relief to enable this society to continue functioning, without suffering any major revolt from its victims.
Not that we’d want to classify Kody Nielson as a victim. Even if his dramatic mutation from inveterate noisemaker in the ramshackle yet brilliant Mint Chicks might possibly excuse such a conclusion, there’s no doubt that his first LP as Silicon is the work of a talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, one who will only go from strength to strength. It may suffer from some of the falsity it wishes to expose, and it may be a little too pessimistic in its outlook, but it melds its diverse influences into tightly composed songs fit for the 21st century. Even more than that, it warns us not to remain staring at that screen for too long, so I think I’m going to take its advice and stop typing now. Maybe I’ll go out for a walk.