You get the distinct feeling that most critics didn’t expect Fatboy Slim to still be around by now. Certainly in the mainstream rock world, artists like Fatboy Slim — the mischievous alter-ego of Mr. Norman Cook — aren’t usually the type who stick around and have long and eventful careers. Cook was already a fairly well known remixer and DJ before he first put needle to wax as the Fatboy, so you could probably have been forgiven for dismissing the act as a fluke, a Chris Gaines for the electronic music world.
But strangely enough, for an artist who had released singles and albums under names as strange as Pizzaman, the Mighty Dub Katz and Freak Power, Fatboy Slim was the one that stuck, and the one with which he has seen the greatest success. Everybody and their mother has a copy of 1998’s You’ve Come a Long Way Baby, and even the people who didn’t buy it all heard the inescapable likes of “Praise You”, “The Rockafeller Skank” and “Gangsta Trippin'”. There was a time not so long ago when seemingly every movie trailer had one or more FBS track in it, and if Cook had been in it solely for the money he surely could have retired rich off the proceeds from You’ve Come a Long Way Baby‘s inescapable product placements.
But of course, he didn’t retire. He came back with 2001’s Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, which was too smart an album by half for most people’s conception of what a dance album should sound like. Sure, it had a few bangin’ floor fillers, as well as a few of Cook’s trademark electronic / rock fusion numbers, but the songs that truly stuck out were infused with a melancholy soul and wistful maturity lacking from just about everything he had previously recorded. Perhaps Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars was nowhere near as accessible as You’ve Come a Long Way Baby, and the album failed to launch a hit single in the vein of the latter album’s numerous monster successes. (The wonderful and award-winning video for “Weapon of Choice”, featuring a dancing Christopher Walken, noticeably failed to increase the album’s profile.) There were also many fans of Fatboy’s first album, 1996’s superb Better Living Through Chemistry, who felt alienated by his third album’s slightly disassociated attitude towards club culture. Cook was very vocally growing bored with the parochial attitudes prevalent in the dance music community and beginning, on tracks such as the excellent “Demons” (featuring Macy Gray), as well as the spiritually-inclined “Drop the Hate” and “Song For Shelter”, to inch his way towards a much more personal idiom for his knowingly eclectic music. “Song For Shelter” was an attempt by Cook to encapsulate everything he loved about the genre of house music into a single track, but it sounded more like a eulogy than anything else. Norman Cook was growing older, but where did that leave Fatboy Slim?
The answer arrives, three years later, on Palookaville. Although I will refrain from describing this as Cook’s best album under the Fatboy Slim pseudonym, it is definitely his most coherent since his debut. But whereas Better Living Through Chemistry was a hard-as-nails slab of funky breaks (what we would call “big beat” if I didn’t find that a uselessly asinine term), Palookaville is a subtle, deeply melancholic album with more than a touch of Britpop in its genes. The fact that Blur’s Damon Albarn shows up for a track makes perfect sense. Cook produced a pair of tracks on Blur’s most recent album, Think Tank, and Fatboy Slim definitely picked up a few tricks from the brief collaboration.
The most surprising element for longtime fans will be the radically different manner in which a number of the songs have been composed. The last Fatboy Slim album saw Cook very tentatively dipping his toes into the world of live vocals, with appearances by the aforementioned Gray as well as “Weapon of Choice”‘s Bootsy Collins. This album not only features more guest vocals, but it actually features real-live instruments as well. It feels like a more organic construct, and the songwriting is appropriately more complex and diverse.
The album begins, however, with a pair of tunes that would not have been out of place on either of his past two releases. “Don’t Let the Man Get You Down”, features a prominent sample taken from the Five Man Electric Band’s “Signs” (you know, the one that begins with “And the sign said, long-haired freaky people need not apply”). It’s a catchy number that appeared in a slightly altered form on Astralwerks’ 2003 soundtrack to the SSX-3 video game. This is followed by “Slash Dot Dash”, a full-bore rock number in the vein of “Ya Mama” or “The Rockafeller Skank”. Anyone doubting whether or not Cook still had it in him to produce the kind of mindlessly catchy pop numbers that made his name should look no further. This track is also, I believe, the first instance of Cook’s own bass-playing on the album. Most people probably don’t know that he played bass for early-90s Britpop also-rans the Housemartins. He hung up his bass guitar when he became a producer and reportedly never picked it up again until the recording of this album. He may not be the most acrobatic bass player, but his rumbly playing adds a surprisingly robust element to his tried-and-true formula of rock/dance hybridization.
Of course, he tosses any notion of formula out the window with “Wonderful Tonight”, featuring a breathless appearance by indie hip-hop stalwart Lateef. This is the first indicator that there’s something new and different in Cook’s studio, a new type of energy that had heretofore been totally absent. Whereas many electronic artists approach a guest vocal with forensic detachment, as merely another element in their complex sound collages, there’s a sense here that Cook is working with his guests — truly collaborating — and in the process creating something that would have otherwise been beyond his reach. This feeling is immediately validated by “Long Way From Home”, featuring UK up-and-comers Jonny Quality. This is the kind of stomping, blues-inflected rock ‘n’ roll that you would probably never have associated with Fatboy Slim, but it works, and works well. Its got one of the album’s catchiest hooks, and that is high praise indeed, considering the rest of the disc.
“Put It Back Together”, featuring the aforementioned Albarn, is a similar stretch, a melancholy slab of moody rock reminiscent of what the Beta Band should have sounded like, with vulnerable, disjointed vocals set above a funk-infused rock groove that might have felt right at home on a mid-period Blur record. This is followed by “Mi Bebé Masoquista”, a slightly more up-tempo piece built atop of Shel Silverstein sample. It may seem out of place after the slow burn of “Long Way From Home” and “Put It Back Together”, but the slightly discordant themes of lost love and connubial strife point to deeper rivers running through the heart of the album.
These themes come bubbling to the surface with “Push and Shove”, featuring Justin Robertson on vocals, a pleading and beseeching track that serves as the album’s emotional climax. If I didn’t know that Cook and his wife, UK radio personality Zoe Ball, had suffered through a bitter separation prior to the recording of this album, I might wonder if everything was all right in Cook’s household. But there is no need for worry, as the hints of infidelity and disenchantment are eventually replaced by themes of contrition and mutual forgiveness. The song begins with:
“If one kiss led to another, baby, / I’m ready to forgive you, honey, / There’s a light that shines between us, / And its worth the crying, lady.”
I don’t know and don’t care what happened, but that’s as sincere an apology as has ever been pressed to wax. I shouldn’t be surprised that the happy couple is once again together, if Cook is capable of such wonderful apologies (albeit apologies sung by strange men named Justin). “Push and Shove” is followed by with “North West Three”, a beautiful and melancholic tune seemingly made to order for reconciled lovers, with a strong vein of regret and sadness running beneath the maudlin surface.
If the middle of the album serves as the thematic setpiece, the last third redeposits the listener in more congenial climes. “The Journey” is Lateef’s second track, a jaunty piece of wild-west funk that serves as a perfect bridge between the heavier goings-on that preceded it and the furious funk that follows. On that note, Norm’s old-school fans may have been waiting the whole album for “Jin Go Lo Ba”, a barn-raising dance number built atop an afrobeat sample from Babatunde Olatunji. I anticipate some excellent remixes if this is released as a single.
“Song For Chesh” is a subdued funk instrumental built with thematic bits and pieces culled from throughout the album. Longtime fans might be alienated by Palookaville‘s resounding quietude, and this odd little track, slightly reminiscent of the Avalanches, will do little to change their minds. The album’s final number is its only major misstep, a cover of the Steve Miller Band’s kitsch classic “The Joker”, featuring Bootsy Collins on vocal duties. I don’t think it was a good idea for Cook to pick this song, of any, to cover — it’s just too distinctive on its own, so much so that any cover sounds like a self-conscious joke. But, it works in the context of the album, insomuch as it is a fitting capstone to such a highly personal work. Fatboy Slim is not an artist who even his most ardent admirers usually associate with gripping, emotional songwriting, and the placement of such an unabashedly fun track at the end of the album serves to restore the status quo in Cook’s hedonistic world. He’s older, wiser, and maybe a little sadder for his troubles, but at the end of the day he gets paid to play records for hundreds of thousands of people at giant beach parties across the planet. It’s a good life.
The good-natured rivalry between Cook and his fellow “big beat” survivors the Chemical Brothers seems to have finally run its course. If his first album was a not-so-subtle riposte to the Chems’ epochal Exit Planet Dust, and his second album was a slightly more poppy annex to Dig Your Own Hole‘s cerebral adventurousness, Palookaville stands on its own, separate from the artificial comparison of any rivalry. If anything, Palookaville puts Cook firmly in the driver’s seat as the Chemical Brothers approach the release of their fifth album in January. The Chems’ peerless sound hasn’t aged a day, but their once-faultless ear for sophisticated composition seems to be suffering slightly by a premature mid-life crisis, falling backwards into the comforting confines of the club sound. Palookaville finally puts to bed the condescending notion that dance-based electronic music artists can’t mature meaningfully, and the ball is now firmly in the Chems’ court.
The American critical establishment has never had an easy time with Fatboy Slim. You’ve Come a Long Way Baby, despite its success, suffered from the perception than a phenomenon like Fatboy Slim could only ever be a novelty, and that an album’s worth of catchy, novel pop tracks could only ever equal a novelty album. Of course, anyone who dismissed Fatboy Slim as a novelty act was wholly unprepared for Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, and that could definitely go a long way towards explaining just why the album was greeted with such a chilly reception. As a long-standing fixture in the dance music world, Cook is used to crafting singles that seem effortlessly novel despite their gratifying intricacy. In the world of electronic music, an artist can build a long and fulfilling career on nothing more than a succession of interesting singles. This is, of course, anathematic to a generation of music critics raised to esteem the thematic cohesion of the album format above all else. As Fatboy Slim, Cook has traditionally constructed albums with an eye towards nothing more than releasing a nice set of catchy songs. This is no longer the case, as Palookaville is every bit as rewarding an experience when taken as a cohesive unit as the best songs are when taken individually.