Over the past decade, “ruin porn” and a lurid fascination with urban decay have fueled Detroit’s growing tourism industry. The birthplace of Motown and techno found itself a poster child for the failures of American capitalism. In the recent wake of the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, that sullied reputation is shifting, and this once industrial giant is slowly roaring back to life as a culturally vibrant destination for theater, art, and music. The ghostly wreckage that surrounds the city’s recent revitalization though continues to serve as a cautionary tale for other metropolitan areas across the country, that you could be next.
Austrian writer Ernst Fischer once wrote, “In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay,” and the beauty of Detroit’s disintegration and its rebirth continue to serve as an endless source of inspiration for artists and writers who call Motor City home, like Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller. Known collectively as ADULT., this talented husband and wife duo dropped their five-song 12″ EP Dispassionate Furniture 20 years ago. Today they continue to churn out unhinged, paranoia-tinged dance-punk that endures, even as their late ’90s, electroclash peers have mostly fallen out of memory. Six albums and a walloping 19 EPs and singles later, they have dropped one of the best records of their career with the stellar This Behavior.
Previous recordings had flaunted all the spiky synths and skull-bashing, buzzy bass lines associated with the couple’s sound, but the mischievous tone of their early material had given way to an altogether more menacing vibe by the time Why Bother? arrived. The emphasis on brooding atmosphere over “traditional” song structure reached an all-time high with last year’s esoteric album Detroit House Guests. Save for the spasmodic “We Chase the Sound” with Light Asylum’s Shannon Funchess, this quirky record felt as if its sole purpose was to nourish the duo’s experimental whims, more than to feed the desires of their fanbase. On This Behavior, the dancefloor-centric vibe harkens back to the feverish spirit of 2003’s Anxiety Always.
The album kicks off with a pounding, clubbish beat and the sounds of a skittish drum machine, as Nicola rails against the inane behavior of her fellow (wo)man, with an almost tribal delivery, one that evokes Native American war chants. The title track is followed by an everything but the kitchen sink approach of “Violent Shakes”, which comes off like what an ADULT. and Basement Jaxx collaboration might sound like. That frenzied feel of a bustling city disappears for a while, but returns midway through the record with “On the Edge”. It is as if all three tracks were composed as the soundtrack for a scene from an imaginary film, in which a crowd of passing commuters suddenly find themselves jammed tightly together in a claustrophobic subway car.
Third track “Silent Exchange” drifts by at an elegant funereal pace, almost unnoticeable, like the couple in the song whose relationship has drifted away from them. Pulsating first single, “Perversions of Humankind”, is a soaring highlight with a chorus uncannily reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)”. However, it’s the jittery, acid techno track “Everything & Nothing”, the post-punk paean “Does the Body Know” and the delightfully chaotic “Lick Out the Content”, that sees Kuperus and Miller at the top of their game. The record concludes with “In All the Debris”, an eerie, splintered, wintry composition that could have been lifted from a sinister, 1970s Giallo film. Nicola seems caught in a trance, uttering the numbing mantra, “Why do we go on so long / Why do we so long go on…” as twinkly, arpeggiated synths waft by and taper off into silence.
The Latin words “Speramus meliora; resurgent cineribus,” (“We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes.”) are inscribed on the flag of the city of Detroit. An urban empire once on the brink of disappearing into the ether is now gradually being resurrected from the dead. Great cities are only as remarkable as the artists within them, and the musical legacy of the town has survived even when the buildings around it crumbled. From MC5 to Aretha Franklin, Jeff Mills to Stevie Wonder, there have been many remarkable artists to come out of Motor City. ADULT. deserve to be mentioned in the same light. Twenty years in, they continue to capture the thorny sides of human behavior like no one else out there, and their acerbic wit and disorienting sound is still dark, dangerous, and wrapped in anarchic black leather, but served with a knowing wink and a wry grin.