Pop’s 21st-century renaissance has redeemed the dead zone of shallow confection and mechanical frigidity that was 1980s electro-pop, or at the very least given credence and perspective to the so-called Guilty Pleasure. “Pop” and “synthesizer” aren’t quite the dirty words they used to be, so now Neil Young’s Trans gets a fair shake when mentioned in the same breath as Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode is as agreeable a dance option as the Pet Shop Boys. Absolution, thy name is a fizzy three-minute ditty of your choosing.
In their years-in-the-making collaboration as Neon Neon, Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys and LA-based underground hip-hop producer Boom Bip are a manifestation of once-maligned ’80s electro-pop. I mean, these guys are really up to their elbows in the stuff, in this world of pastel yuppie accessories and Tron special effects, so much that they stick their tongues in their cheeks almost begrudgingly. Within the poker-faced aesthetic of their debut album, Stainless Style, is conceptual purpose: the story of John DeLorean — the notorious playboy and automobile engineer whose company produced the DeLorean DMC-12 sports car with gull-wing doors made famous in Back to the Future, only to go under when he was charged with drug trafficking in 1982 — a story told in the language of dream cars and dream girls, in the blur of nightclubs and boardrooms, where illusion and fantasy coddle up to the demands of wealth and ambition.
Stainless Style resuscitates the disposable, like Dr. Frankenstein holding court over an operating table of pop ephemera and dated technology with equal parts love and ironic distance. Pass the icy synthesizer! Give me a drum machine of artificial thunder and some mechanized sexual tension, stat! It’s a collision of high art and low art, a tragedy of affect and artifice wrapped in the regressive foil of two-dimensional ’80s synth tones and muted power chords.
This attraction of opposites is what lifts Stainless Style above a potentially jokey conceit. Rhys smuggles narratives of lust and loneliness into Boom Bip’s jungle of sentimental machines, reflecting human desire amongst the synthetic noise. Images of “dream girls in cold cars” and “cold girls in dream cars” are mixed up in the sighing thrust of “Dream Girls”, while a movie star wields spellbinding power in the New Order-esque “Raquel”. “Video games are nothing but illusion / Illuminate me with thoughtful interaction,” Rhys sings in “Steel Your Girl”, as guitars ring out arpeggios around him to keep the besieging electronics at bay. “Belfast” is a reference to where the DeLorean DMC-12s were manufactured, but Rhys’s resigned voice cuts through the shards of synths and tinny rat-a-tat drums: “I took you for granted like so many in my day / I built my empire and threw it all away.” Later, in the throbbing nightmare “Michael Douglas”, Rhys calls out for a “soul implant” and sees his “subjection” and “look of rejection” in the reflection of “Michael Douglas’s mirrored sunglasses”. There, in pop culture iconography: emptiness.
Rhys, known for his indelible psych-pop melodies in Super Furry Animals’ eclectic catalog, repeatedly guns for the perfect pop hook on at least half of Stainless Style‘s addictive tracks. “I Lust U”, a Depeche Mode- or Pet Shop Boys-pining synth strut with an aching chorus, arguably takes the cake. Rhys shares the song with Welsh singer Cate Le Bon; she says they get along “famously”, while he, never one to shy from a good pun, substitutes “strenuously” in his verse. “I love (lust) you if the price is right,” they both sing, conducting business in the middle of a come-on.
“Sweat Shop”, featuring Tampa hip-hop duo Yo Majesty, on the other hand, has no melody to speak of and instead relies solely on a pounding rhythm. It’s a more aggressive example of sex as industry (it opens with the sound of moaning girls) — an indulgence in the lusts that writhe around in the pop of yesterday and today. “Sweat Shop” is one of the three hip-hop tracks sequenced to break up the monopoly of ’80s pop on Stainless Style, and also make connections to the lo-fi progressivism of contemporary pop. Har Mar Superstar and Spank Rock guest on “Trick for Treat”, an episode of Bright Lights, Big City decadence, while Fatlip (ex-Pharcyde) offers up the album’s sole explicit biography of DeLorean on the humid banger “Luxury Pool”. “You ride with me, maybe I’ll make you famous,” he repeats, still cocky after divulging a narrative of extravagant downfall.
And yet: “You ride with me, maybe I’ll make you famous.” In a way, this is the essence of Stainless Style; all talk of ’80s Life and concept albums aside, it’s a record about girls and cars. And just like “Rocket 88”, Born to Run, and “Little Red Corvette” before it, Stainless Style gets to the heart of popular music’s motivation through one of its oldest obsessions, following roads that lead somewhere and nowhere with desire and drive stashed in the trunk.