Since leaving Yuck at the peak of their buzz-band popularity, Daniel Blumberg has done everything he can to disassociate himself with the kind of music he used to make. He began playing in a scene of avant-garde musicians in north London and collaborated with the likes of Low and Neil Michael Hagerty of Royal Trux. Even this, Blumberg’s debut album under his name, was recorded and mixed by Pete Walsh, the longtime collaborator of Scott Walker. There’s a clear message being sent by Blumberg on Minus, and that is that he is more than just a mere pop songwriter: he’s an artist with something meaningful to say… at least, that’s what he wants us to think.
In execution, Minus is a mess of a record, something that dabbles in the realms of pop and avant-garde without fully committing to either aesthetic. These songs aren’t radically experimental, nor do they really work as pop songs. They appear sort of half-formed, cobbled together with the contributions of Blumberg’s backing band to create something that partially resembles a finished piece of music.
At times, Blumberg relies on hypnotic repetition as a way to build a song (The title track and “Stacked” are decent examples of this technique), whereas the longer pieces on Minus are barely-sketched improvisational ramblings that offer little in the way of melody and next to nothing in terms of structure. The album strives, perhaps, for the challenging and disquieting tones of late-period Talk Talk mixed with attempts at the sort of muted country-rock of Jeff Tweedy’s collaborations with Jim O’Rourke, but the full committal to strangeness never arrives.
The best experimental pop has a strong emotional undercurrent paired with the atypical composition techniques; think the horror-goth aggression of early Sonic Youth or the melodrama of Swans. Daniel Blumberg strains for that emotional heft on Minus, but it sadly isn’t really there. His voice twists and turns, occasionally reaching Neil Young levels of delicacy, but try as he might, he can’t elevate the more conventional songs on Minus to be more than the half-written alt-country ballads that they essentially are.
Even a song like “The Bomb”, a piano ballad seemingly set up to deliver the sort of emotional gut punch that Minus so desperately needs to work, lacks anything memorable to last beyond the initial listen, however pretty of a song it may be. This is clearly an album that Blumberg framed as a deeply personal statement, but it never feels as if we’re getting much of anything truly personal on Minus. If we are, it doesn’t resonate the way that it should.
Instead of being something declarative, Minus showcases an artist seemingly unsure of what he should be doing. Neither a direct, honest pop album nor a truly bizarre, experimental art record, Minus is a meandering mess that tries to say everything and ends up saying very little. Perhaps Blumberg will create something stronger and more assured in the future; some songwriters do get better with age. But this record may be the most disappointing example of youthful artistic hubris to arrive in quite some time.