I absolutely unreservedly love this album. It rocks, it's got soul, and it's hushed; it's modern, it's throwback; it's reflective and confessional yet remains enigmatic; it shows a deep encyclopediac knowledge of all musical forms and yet somehow isn't paralyzed by that knowledge. And, above all else, it's really very strange and experimental at its core while sounding quite familiar. Perfect even in its imperfections, Gomez has hit the freakin' bullseye with this one.
Um . . . what else can I say?
Well, let's say this. I really thought Gomez' first album, the Mercury Prize-winning Bring It On, was a marvelous thing -- an album of bluesy rocky folky latiny English soul music that seemed to be influenced by every other style of music and yet indebted to none. All the other critics were transfixed by the fact that the group was all in their early 20s but sounded much older, or the fact that they recorded half the tracks by themselves in a garage, or the "fact" that Ben Ottewell sings like John Lee Hooker crossed with Eddie Vedder with a dollop of Nick Drake on top -- and yeah, those were great hooks for music writers to hang their coffee-stained fedoras on. But I was more interested in their songcraft: it's never a bad thing if a group can actually write compelling songs, and Gomez had 'em in droves. They seemed to be Everyblokes, with their songs about wanting to get away from it all and being fucked up on drugs and shielding themselves from the demands of intimacy, but they were clearly not going to go the whole classic-rock route.
That's why I was a little disappointed with their soph disc Liquid Skin. It was undoubtedly adventurous; songs this time revolved around card dealers being carried away by faeries and hangover girls, and often went through several different styles and time sigs in the course of a single track. And they were working on being a three-headed vocal monster, so that it wasn't just Ian or Tom or Ben singing but all three doing different lines and harmonies and pieces -- that part, I admired. What I was sad about was the loss of song. They had become an experimental prog-pop band, with little of the emotional edge or DIY prodigy appeal of their debut.
So I was worried about this record, especially since UK critics have lined up to shit all over it. They called it "too clever by half" and slack; they called it both "spoiled" by the band's new interest in electronics and the equivalent of health food. I feared the worst.
And then I heard it.
Look: I've heard thousands of albums in my life. I don't know exactly how many, but we're talking comfortably in the four digits here. Of these, 10 are perfect, and maybe 30 have been completely satisfying listening experiences from their very first spin. So now it's 31; In Our Gun is now on that list, with a bullet. From the beginning to the end, it's a ride, up one side and down the other, and I'm never the same person at the end of the record as I am at the beginning. And that's a good thing.
Let's talk about that beginning. "Shot Shot" goes from stabby memorable acoustic guitar riff to full-on English funk all within the first minute or so, all in service of what sounds like the most joyous ode to selling-out ever: "You found a good reason / Well do it for the money / What's wrong with that?" It's so much fun, though, and so thoroughly weird, that you know they don't mean it -- I mean, hell, they're recreating the honking sax part from the Beastie Boys' "Brass Monkey," fer chrissakes! So by the end, when they're singing "So please stop talking / And start puckering up / My ears are blank," you realize they're being ironic after all. Gomez don't do anything for the money. If they did, they'd sound like some other band.
Song after song here exploits their new tighter sound: "Ping One Down" and "Detroit Swing 66" are both quite groovy (in the sense of actually having a groove), and "Army Dub" is at least an interesting try at combining computer sounds with reggae philosophy in a pop song context. But the softer moments stand out pretty strongly: "Even Song" is a slow crawler of a blues piece, with Ben's mighty voice drawling "Sun stop going down / Come out again" like he's trying to summon a good memory or the end of time. "Rex Kramer" takes some time to develop, but it pays off in gold coin. By the way, not too many bands would name a song after an air-traffic controller character from the movie Airplane, but this is actually Gomez's second one, after their b-side "Steve McCroski" from Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline. (McCroski is the one who picks the wrong week to stop sniffing glue; Kramer is the one who lands the plane.) And then there's "Sound of Sounds" -- no, I'm not ready to talk about that one yet. Maybe ever.
The title track is their first admitted stab at politics, although you might not know it to hear it the first few times. It uses a gentle creepy feel and the homey Ian Ball lines "Put up your feet / Throw some coal on the fire / And weave us a tale of delight" to set up a metaphor about how we're all just human bullets in George W. Bush's plan: "So we sit in our gun / And we wait for our turn / We'll be waiting all of our lives" are perhaps the most chilling lyrics I've heard since, jesus, ever. Cool how Ian hits the final word of the line "Send out the monkeys / They come out of the bushes," too. Good on yer, mate. Even the techno freakout at the end of the song, which they've described as kind of a fuck-you to the Oil Über Alles theory, fails to reassure me of anything. They've looked into the heart of the matter, and they don't like what they see. And neither do I. That's why I turn this song way the shit up when it's in my car and I'm stopped next to an SUV flying a flag. Not that whoever's driving understands that he's in the gun too. They never do.
There are a couple of recurring themes throughout the album. Someone's been dancing with Mr. Brownstone, if the lyrics to "Ruff Stuff" can be believed: "Darlin', come back / I've given up fags and drugs now baby / Darlin' come back / I've had enough of the ruff stuff baby." [Remember: "fags" means "cigarettes" in England.] And if you throw in the chorus from "Detroit Swing 66," which runs in part "I think I'm coming round / I'm feeling signs of hope / Some water, some whiskey / Some cigarettes or dope / I think I'm coming round / Can you help me up to cope?", I'm hoping that people are going to their meetings and consulting with their sponsors and stuff. But the rest of that song, with its surreal wordplay, makes me think that their heads are all on straight after all -- you can't write about "hyperventilated mish-mash made entirely out of bones" if you're actually ON drugs.
There are at least seven other things I want to talk about here, but I don't want to spoil them for you. One of those things is "Sound of Sounds," which has assumed almost iconic status for me in my life right now for various reasons that I don't want to get into. Just let me say that Tom's plaintive a capella opening, "Did you ever stop and wonder / Where you'd be without her," is the third-best moment; Ian and Ben's voices weaving in and out to harmonize on "Have you forgotten who you are?" is the second-best moment; and the first best is Paul Blackburn's completely unexpected reggae bassline on the chorus. Sublime, sad, hopeful, perfect.
Everyone who doesn't like this record is insane in a bad way. Screw Wilco; In Our Gun is sounding very much like the Album of the Year.