Last August, Future Bible Heroes released Eternal Youth, a collection of wittily-worded, '80s flashback synth-pop numbers. The Lonely Robot is a seven-song EP of remixes from Eternal Youth by an all-star cast of DJs, engineers, and producers, plus two new songs. Considering that Future Bible Heroes is one of Stephin Merritt's brainchildren, it's not surprising that the man who wrote 69 love songs each more spooky and disarming than the next was able to call in favors from electropop's A-list: Soft Cell; indie pioneer and Mute records founder, Daniel Miller (Depeche Mode and Goldfrapp, among others, released on Mute in the '80s); Gareth Jones, who produced Depeche Mode, Einsturzende Neubauten, and Erasure; London-based duo Client; and NYC-based house producer Rob Rives, who had the cajones to remix Kraftwork (his is the remix of "The World Is a Disco Ball"). On this album, Magnetic Fields drummer/keyboardist Claudia Gonson lends her voice to Merritt's always stellar lyrics.
It's hard to describe a remix album without referring back to the original, but The Lonely Robot would be a stand-alone great even without the contrast to Eternal Youth. What's amazing is that the new take brings a retro album into the present, without making it sound at all self-referential or pretentiously ironic. This is club music for today; it just also happens to be intelligent and witty -- something that I couldn't really say about the latest top-of-the-pops "club remix".
There are three remixes of "Loosing Your Affection", a twisted nursery rhyme of a love song (sample lyric: "I would rather rub the hair of a bear in a lair in the opposite direction / I would rather put the make on a rattlesnake than be loosing your affection"), each unique. The first, by Client, throws in some fuzz-heavy bass and slows the beat down, giving the whimsical lyrics a menacing edge. Of course, you already have Claudia Gonson's gender-bending voice uttering lyrics like "I would rather be the queen at the guillotine in a bloody insurrection". The ending lightens things up with an arpeggio synth line, and the overall feel gets more spacey and less funky as a high reverb "loosing your affection" loops over strings.
To me, this remix is the best because it is constantly stripping itself down and relayering itself, and at the bottom is always that funky, fuzzy bass: relentless, brilliant. Whenever the layers are stripped bare, you get the same bass fuzz, and then new elements weave another sound tapestry.
The Sunroof remix of "Loosing Your Affection" is also stripped-down and bass heavy, but it quickly segues, beginning with bottle-tapping and building with a number of eerily organic sounds into some kind of punch-card symphony.
The Soft Cell mix is by far the longest on the album, clocking in at over eight minutes, and beginning with the kind of electro-wash tremulousness that always screams teenage melodrama to me (think of the way Yaz was used in the film The Chocolate War). Claudia's voice sounds the most processed and robotic (but in a cool way) in this remix; it is by far the lightest, fastest mix, peppered with light synth fills (if you can call them that) and pegged to a syncopated, very 21st century beat.
But these are just the remixes of one song. "I'm a Vampire," by far the cleverest, both lyrically and musically, on Eternal Youth, gets an update from its original doo-wop, "Leader of the Pack" feel. Now there's another layer of retro: if the original evoked the fifties the way, say, the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John Grease did (that is, from the perspective of the swinging '70s), the remix seems to be a 2003 re-imagining of the kind of proto-rapping Debbie Harry did on "Rapture". Neither of these comparisons do much justice; it's just a way of showing that these people know what they are doing, and are in fact juggling and reordering so many layers of irony that it's dizzying!
Besides the "Losing Your Affection" remixes, which demonstrate the album's range, and "I'm a Vampire", which is just hilarious and smart and toe-tapping good, the EP features a new song, "The Lonely Robot". It is a sort of futuristic fairy tale about a robot who has "ended all life, absorbed all other robots" -- hence her loneliness. So she creates a world out of memories of movies; but this too bores her, because she already knows the ending. She changes the rules so that anything can happen, "But the actors can't believe that, so they keep pretending the script is real, and means things". Frustrated, the lonely robot erases the whole world and "A trillion stories all came abruptly to a non-ending", finally offering our circuit-based cosmic heroine the gift of non-existence. The lyrics are spoken in a kind of mythical tone while the synth lines echo in an ethereal soundscape, absurd as the world of light and broken memories the lonely robot makes to soothe herself. It is both a touching and a hilarious song; both tongue-in-cheek and deadpan sincere.
"The Lonely Robot" is a fitting ending for the EP: it seems to sum up the remixes retro-futurism and take it one step further. The Eternal Youth remixes have a certain teenage melancholy in those melodious, tremulous synth lines, an emotional distance that the synthesizer no longer symbolizes, now that we've got all these other techno gewgaws (and our synths sound so much "realer"). Our world is much closer to the one "The Lonely Robot" both celebrates and warns against: seamlessly technological and organic, ironic and sincere, past and future.