Over the past few years, this whole electro, synth pop revival has been fun, but only to a certain degree. You can listen to all those revivalists recreate the electronic music of the early ’80s all day long, and although you’ll come across more than a few very cool tunes, you’re left in the end with a hollow feeling inside. At times it can be highly enjoyable, such as the cheesy vulgarity of Peaches, the entrancing, hypnotic melodies of Ladytron, the house fused strains of Felix Da Housecat, the artsy pretension of Chicks On Speed, or the all-out celebration of pop culture of Fischerspooner (whose album will likely be one the few defining records of the genre), but to get to the good stuff, you have to wade through a lot of sludge. You’re bombarded by overtly robotic vocals, vocoders galore, an endless soundtrack to old Intellivision games, and dozens upon dozens of auteur wannabes who have absolutely nothing to say. The one thing missing from most of the new electro music? Passion.
Enter the snarky Detroit husband-and-wife duo Adult. One of the pioneering groups in this big synth pop revival, Adult. were doing this before it became fashionable and got its own brand name (the oft-scorned title “electroclash”). Since 1998, Nicola Kuperus and her hubby Adam Lee Miller have built up a cult following with their own version of minimalist, Eurotrashy techno, with such songs as “Dispassionate Furniture”, “Nausea”, and especially the wickedly nasty “Hand to Phone”, as well as their 2001 album Resuscitation, which was basically a compilation of all their early singles. They’ve also put out many notable remixes, including brilliant versions of Fischerspooner’s “Emerge”, Felix Da Housecat’s “Silver Screen, Shower Scene”, and Death in Vegas’s 2002 UK hit, “Hands Around My Throat” (on which Kuperus contributes vocals). So now, nearly two years after their first full-length release, Adult. have surfaced once again, but this time, with a record that’s an album in the truest sense, a more focused effort that tries to take their trademark synth sound in a new direction.
Anxiety Always is, to put it bluntly, one pissed-off album, a snide, sarcastic, bitchy commentary on trend-followers, relationships, and the brainwashed masses out there, and it’s so up front in its condescension that you’re taken aback at first, so punk-like is Adult.’s sound. It’s like Ian MacKaye fronting an electroclash band. Gone are the layers of synths that dominated much of Adult.’s early work; here, the sound is even more stripped-down than before, the very simple synth melodies heavily influenced by early Eighties punk, and the songs’ messages are much more pointed, more direct. Kuperus’s vocals, while still sounding as disembodied and cold as heard on early Adult. tracks, are now right up front in the mix, with no vocoders masking what she has to say, and when Kuperus does have something to say on this album, she does not mince words one iota.
There’s a particularly uncomfortable theme of brutality, of unease on Anxiety Always that’s more than obvious in the song titles, such as “Glue Your Eyelids Together”, “Blank Eyed, Nose Bleed”, and “Kick in the Shin”. “Shake Your Head” has an industrial pop feel, with its ominous synth programming and cacophonous beats, as Kuperus sounds vicious as she hollers, “If you don’t know/Ask your mother/The end of guessing games.” The very punk “Turn Your Back” actually has bass guitar (played by Miller) and some frenetic, barbed ranting by Kuperus (“Slowing up and speeding down/I’m out of time and out of tune”), while both the instrumental “Nervous (Wreck)” and the searing “Nothing of the Kind” are menacingly nihilistic (“Walking in the void/Too much space/Nothing in my mind/It’s all erased”). The album saves the best for last, as “Kick in the Shin”, despite its simple synth arrangement, manages to rock harder than most electroclash songs out there. Kuperus shows a tiny bit more vocal range on the song, and it makes all the difference, adding a deliciously sarcastic tone to her lyrics (“At this point in time/You should read between the lines/A kick in the shin/A punch in the chin/Where to begin”).
The album is at its most acerbic, but also at its weakest, on three songs, which seem to be a thinly-veiled attack on the more fashionable electroclash artists and all their uber-hip followers. “Glue Your Eyelids Together”, “People, You Can Confuse”, and “We Know How to Have Fun” all seem to have a deliberately stiff “electroclash” sound, as well as some caustic, venomous lyrics that make you think Adult. are mocking the scene that they had a profound influence on (“The conversation/Of a conceited bore/Is usually over before it’s done”). The thing is, the music is so by-the-book, that the message will likely be lost on the people who will wind up enjoying the music the most, rendering the whole exercise pointless.
Thankfully, it’s a mis-step that doesn’t mar the album that badly. With Anxiety Always, Adult. prove once again that they’re still more than capable of holding their own among the more fashionable nu-electro outfits out there. In a genre that’s absolutely overflowing with empty, mindless novelty acts, it’s good to hear an album that has some kind of human quality to it, even if that human quality makes you want to hide under the bed.