In every future-focused work that predicts what would happen if technology went unchecked, the most chilling facet is the presentation of the conscious machine. My personal favorite is Agent Smith from The Matrix. Unlike the Terminator universe, which takes place in the physical realm, much of the action in The Matrix occupies a digital space that has implications on the real world. What makes Smith a powerful antagonist is that he isn’t simply a machine — he’s a virus, able to manipulate every inch of the Matrix. He can take any form, is nearly immune to attack, and benefits from being able to quickly process information both philosophically as well as intellectually. Though many elements of The Matrix series have lost their luster in the decade-and-a-half since the first movie’s release, Smith remains the most existentially dreadful potential outcome of our continued pursuit of the singularity. His ability to fly under the radar and the ease in which he lures humans into hosting him are the elements of his character that are truly terrifying.
2.0, the latest from Alan Wilkis’ Big Data moniker, takes a unique approach to dystopian commentary. Instead of railing against the ‘opt-in to stay cool’ forfeit of privacy that has become America’s cultural norm, Wilkis and company write songs from the perspective of the being behind the camera’s eye. Like an aural episode of The Twilight Zone, Big Data presents 2.0 as an artifact from an alternative reality where NSA agents and sentient surveillance machinery have pet interests in dance music. It could fall under the ‘concept album’ umbrella, though the narrative is just cloudy enough to sidestep the terminology. Instead, the listener is presented with an odd 10-track collection that ranges from mostly brilliant to occasionally (and obnoxiously) obvious.
From a production standpoint, 2.0 is a masterclass. Wilkis brings his highly sought-after remix workflow to build incredible sonic continuity throughout the album. The arrangements are lush but rarely overcrowded. Density will often give way to simple finger snaps or warm reverb saturating a familiar vocal line. Repeated motifs in a single song do not point to a simple copy/paste on the piano roll. Instead, Wilkis seems to build each track both vertically and horizontally. Each new iteration presents the opportunity for subtle changes, keeping the listener immersed and engaged. Through this practice, Wilkis creates an experience historically reserved for analog. The slip of the bassist’s fingers or an accidental rim hit on the snare that lend great character to human-executed recordings somehow find their digital counterparts in Wilkis’s production. For the majority of the album, this keeps 2.0 from staling, but there is an upper ceiling to the weakest tracks that strips the novelty away. The new-wave drone of “Snowed In” is clever, but the anthemic “Get Some Freedom” and “Sick For Me” are predictable. Most of the time, though, he hits the mark and finds something interesting to say about a genre that has been possibly overexposed.
In unpacking the introductory half of 2.0, two of the most recognizable commercial tracks of the last few years stack the first ten minutes. Bookends “The Business of Emotion” and “The Glow” serve as excellent companion pieces. If you will tumble freely down the rabbit hole, these first four tracks paint a disturbing thematic picture, in vivid detail. On the surface, they sound like standard love songs, albeit from tragic and desperate lovers. However, 2.0 quickly reveals that it is not just a sad-bastard dance album — it’s intended to be a biting commentary about invasive surveillance practices. Within this framework, the listener realizes that Wilkis and his collaborators have found a way to express their distrust of Big Brother by weaving its point of view into a loose narrative. Lines like “Doesn’t matter if you like it or not / Doesn’t matter if you don’t wanna play my game / Should’ve never ever ever forgot / You signed up / You gotta participate” could be interpreted as the lamentations of spurned ex, but something doesn’t quite fit that surface-level analysis. Instead, “The Business of Emotion” was written as a scathing critique of Facebook’s “Mood Experiments”, which (in a nutshell) was a social experiment perpetrated by the social media empire to manipulate 700,000 of its users by purposefully skewing their News Feeds and then tracking the “emotional contagion”. Crossing the line from observational science to actual user coercion struck many as morally bankrupt, but instead of creating an overt protest track, Wilkis and White Sea take the approach of writing from the perspective of Facebook. The result is nothing short of horrifying, in the most satisfying way.
By opening with “The Business of Emotion”, Big Data makes its tools of revolution clear. “Dangerous” seals the POV technique with its shiver-inducing hook: “You understand, I got a plan for us / I bet you didn’t know I was dangerous / It must be fate, I found a place for us / I bet you didn’t know someone could love you this much.” Now that the machine has a little sentience and understanding of human emotions, it claims to protect us out of love. The invitation to spend our lives in its warm embrace is equally phrased as a threat. After aggregating enough data, the 1’s and 0’s begins to take human form (“You gave me a taste of a life I could lead / You gave me a face for the fools to believe / Now I’m changing, becoming one of you”) and push harder for human allegiance (“This life, oh, it’s a dirty life / But I can show you another way / Don’t you wanna be like me? / Don’t you wanna be clean?”). It offers us a deal — we can exchange our obsolete sense independence for a better way of life. “Snowed In” directly addresses Edward Snowden’s dissent, using Rivers Cuomo’s croon to great effect as he assures us that submission is the path to true acceptance.
“Automatic” is the apex. Jenn Wasner serves as the album’s woman in red, haunting and seductive. By this point in the story, singularity is fully realized and progressing rapidly, possibly with an upload of human consciousness into ‘The Cloud’. This analysis sounds insane, but 2.0 is a complex work of science fiction pop, with Easter eggs abound. The track’s closing line of “I feel so much better today / Now that you’re mine” also closes the chapter on human dominance and begins the reign of the machines.
Then, the album just implodes. For all the hits of the first seven tracks, the misses of the last three aren’t merely disappointing — somehow, the hiccups of 2.0’s conclusion are painfully subtractive to the preceding experience. Perhaps this is harsh, but 2.0 is a truly binary work. The listener can either be impressed by the high water marks, thankful that an album with this much mainstream appeal has pockets of subversion, or the listener can be resentful that Wilkis wasn’t braver. Personally, I’m not interested in casually listening to 2.0. It doesn’t really vibe with what I keep in heavy rotation (that new Pile doe?), so as I became more and more excited by the album’s potential with each passing minute, the laziness that eventually seeped in through the cracks was just crushing. “Get Some Freedom” and “Sick For Me” feature the album’s most ham-fisted lyrics and sound like they were pulled from Repo! The Genetic Opera‘s cutting room floor. Instead of furthering the theme, these tracks rehash ideas from earlier without cleverness. “Perfect Holiday” reclaims some of the glory, but it takes time to get back on board and realign cognitively. Maybe this is the Neo track, one of humanity reestablishing itself? Perhaps it’s the circle closing in on itself through the singularity giving way to the emotional evolution of machines, who realize that the pain of being cognizant wasn’t worth the battle? I’m not sure, but I feel like I ought to be! I know that at the end of the day 2.0 is just a decent dance record, but I want more than that! I want the whole album to stand as solidly and cleanly as it could have if it were only eight tracks. Or 10 tracks that meshed excellently together.
Instead, we have a cooling precipice and two sets of the same footprints — one ascending, one descending.