I've got a word to the wise for any Guns N' Roses fans who might be reading this review: I wouldn't hold your breath for Chinese Democracy. Oh, it'll probably get here in a bit, but it will most definitely not be worth the wait. That's what happens when artists get locked up in history, unable or unwilling to release new music until it's too late: invariably, the long shadows of their historical achievements become an overwhelming obstacle to their current creativity. Unless you're Brian Wilson, there's just no competing with your younger self (and in the case of Smile, it must be remembered, he was basically just picking up where he left off some 30-odd years earlier -- or did I miss all the rave reviews for Getting' in Over My Head?)
Which is all a very circuitous way of saying that the Prodigy's long-awaited follow up to 1997's epochal, genre-defining Fat of the Land is nowhere near as good as you may have hoped. Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned is a good album, don't get me wrong, but this cannot but come as something of a disappointment when you consider how unbelievably great their three prior albums were.
The thing that made the Prodigy so special was always their energy. They did not have the cerebral heft of Orbital, or the sonic virtuosity of the Chemical Brothers, but they had the kind of manic punk menace that you simply can't buy. Regardless of the fact that mastermind Liam Howlett used synthesizers and processors instead of (and sometimes in addition to) electric guitars, they were very much heirs to the early British punk tradition. When they came across the Atlantic to America in 1997, its no real surprise that they did as well as they did: they were angry and full of energy at the exact time when America needed something angry and energetic. Of course, it goes without saying that they were hardly the forerunners of any great "electronica invasion": they were a singular group, and all of their peers in the European electronic music scene were similarly unique. It was something of a fallacy to pretend that just because someone liked the propulsive and incendiary "Firestarter" they would go out and grab a copy of Roni Size's meditative New Forms or Aphex Twin's mentallyunhinged Richard D. James album. So the fact that "electronica" went out with a whimper is not so much of a surprise, albeit the fact that it is still disappointment. (Wouldn't we all like to live in a world where Underworld outsold Linkin Park? Er, well, I would, at least.)
Seven years have passed since Keith Flint graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. In that time, in the minds of most Americans, electronic music has fallen to the status of a novelty genre. After facing almost certain career suicide with 1996's Animal Rights, Moby rose to the pinnacle of the genre, eventually selling many more copies of 1999's Play than had been sold of Fat of the Land. Norman Cook, in his Fatboy Slim guise, has had practically his entire career in the previous seven years. The Chemical Brothers fairly easily stepped out of the Prodigy's shadow, becoming critical darlings and quietly building what could arguably be considered the most impressive body of work within the genre. What has Liam Howlett been doing? Well, according to frequent press reports, he played a lot of video games.
Oh, and lets not forget 2002's disastrous "Baby's Got a Temper", which is on the short list of worst singles ever released by a great bad. "Temper" took everything that had been good about Fat of the Land and ramped it up beyond the limits of self-parody. Whereas before you had the violent but ultimately ambiguous "Smack My Bitch Up", now you had an ode to literal date rape in the form of a paean to the knock-out drug Rohypinol. Admittedly, Fat of the Land was nowhere near as challenging and cerebral a work as 1995's classic Music for the Jilted Generation, but the recycled beats and willfully offensive "Temper" made "Smack My Bitch Up" look like a lost outtake from Slanted and Enchanted. They produced a whole album's worth of material in this horrible, sludgy, nü-metal vein, and let us all thank God in heaven that they realized just how bad it was before releasing more of it.
(And I should note that the relative quality of the discarded material from the "Temper" sessions is hardly theoretical. They played a great deal of this new material on their 2002 tour, and it was almost uniformly abominable. In fact, we can probably thank tepid audience reaction to the newer material for their decision to abandon that sound entirely.)
The Prodigy, for all intents and purposes, is Liam Howlett. Keith Flint, Maxim Reality and Leeroy Thornhill are employed as dancers: they jump around like badgers on speed and goad the audience during live performances. (Leeroy is no longer with the group, however, as he left to pursue solo success under the Flightcrank moniker.) Whereas the dancers had had some small input on previous albums (such as Flint and Maxim's vocal contributions on Fat of the Land, Liam produced this album independent of the group.
Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned is just underwhelming. For a group that has historically specialized in getting your attention any way it possibly could, the fact that I found many of the tracks to be predictably rote is probably as damning an indictment as I can offer. The Prodigy have made a career out of consistently upping the ante with every single release: the rave landmark Experience was followed by the more expansive, more ambitious Music for the Jilted Generation, which was followed by the leaner, angrier Fat of the Land. This is the first Prodigy album that does not in some way build of its predecessor, and it suffers. Certainly, Fat of the Land II would have been an uninspiring choice, but it seems as if this album is more concerned with abjuring the regrettable decisions of the past few years than in building a new a new and dynamic sound.
Which is not to say that the album is bereft of highlights, however. The twin barrage of "Girls" and "Memphis Belles" starts the album well, the former featuring an old-school hip-hop flavor while the latter is simply an excellently violent piece of electronic rock. It all seems very much informed by recent developments in the field of crunk: imagine if Lil' Jon (who is actually a bona-fide closet punk) decided to produce a Dead Kennedys remix album and you might get some idea.
Most of the rest of the album fails to make as strong an impression however. Twista and Kool Keith make perfunctory cameos, Juliette Lewis and the Ping Pong Bitches show up, and the Gallagher brothers (you know, from Oasis) even stop by for a final jam on "Shoot Down". (This last cameo might make more sense if you knew than Liam Howlett is married to Natalie Appleton, who is Nicole Appleton's sister, who just happens to be Liam Gallagher's wife. Strange world, eh?)
So while there are some highlights -- "Girls", "Memphis Belles", the middle-eastern tinged "Phoenix" -- the album gives off the impression of treading water. Howlett is very consciously trying to keep things interesting, and the rhythms have a frantic novelty throughout. But it feels more like the frazzled, red-eyed energy of someone who's been up for two days straight.
Perhaps now that he's got the dreaded follow-up out of his system, Liam will be able to relax into producing a better, more memorable album under less pressure. I dearly hope so, because this would be a weak note on which to end such a distinguished and influential career.