In a recent Spin feature, the members of Radiohead were asked to name their favorite albums of 2000. The one record that showed up on all their lists was Clinic's Internal Wrangler. Part Radiohead, part Velvet Underground, Internal Wrangler is the bizarre, formless album that Thom Yorke wishes he could make.
Internal Wrangler endlessly echoes and rambles in my head. It is disjointed, broken, and fragmentary. Shards of songs are flung at the listener in a flurry of emotional vituperation. Pack into this 32 minute album are 14 songs -- some artfully crafted meditations on love and death ("Earth Angel" and "Distortions"), others loud, raucous punks screams ("Hippy Death Suite"), others playful, elusive pieces of Dada kitsch ("The Second Line"), others defying categorization altogether (the minute and half long tribal drum track "Voodoo Wop" comes to mind). That is central theme of Internal Wrangler -- its heterogeneity, the sense that it is a mosaic of pieces that don't precisely fit, but are beautifully difficult in the way they jar your senses.
Listening to Clinic is a bizarre experience, primarily because of the voice of the singer, who is nameless in the liner notes along with the rest of the band. Reminiscent both of Yorke and the Violent Femmes, it is distinguished by its almost comic pitch and tone, more akin to the Chipmunks than a serious art-rock band. It is, however, impassioned, intense, and, in tandem with the nonsense lyrics, wonderfully elusive. It can be playful, as in "The Second Line", when it slyly chants out the chorus, which I transcribe to be "Tickky tickky do wom ba da!"; it can blend in with the white noise of the punk rockers; and in the albums centerpiece, "Distortions", it is quite simply beautiful, delicately shining forth amid the veiled electronic background.
"Distortions" is truly remarkable. A slow electronic love song, recalling R.E.M.'s "At My Most Beautiful", as the singer croons about loving to watch his lover blink, "Distortions", like the rest of the album, is most distinctive because of its oddness. Juxtaposed with the beautiful 'blinking' line is the line "I've pictured you in coffins," this morbid daydream soon becoming fact as he adds, "My baby's in a coffin". This complex love affair aside, the song is the tale of the idealist's struggle for clarity and sense in a chaotic world. As the singer pleads in the song's outro for his life to be "free of distortions", the music slowly swells, cutting its time signature in half at regular intervals, swirling into a dizzying wall of noise that leaves the singer's wishes trampled in the dust.
The main question that Internal Wrangler raises, like Radiohead's Kid A, is what do we expect when we listen to an album. Are we expecting a unified whole, exploring common themes and utilizing similar musical influences all throughout (a la Dark Side of the Moon), or are we expecting a mosaic hodge-podge of styles and themes, never knowing where the music is going to turn next (a la the Beatles' "White Album")? Do we want to be challenged or satisfied? Are we appreciating art, or simply consuming product? Are we, indeed, "free of distortions" when we listen to rock music?