Fairly or unfairly, Sneaker Pimps will always be remembered in the context of the trip hop and” electronica” trends they personified in 1996-1997 when their debut album Becoming X tapped the zeitgeist via the hit singles “6 Underground” and “Spin Spin Sugar”. Since the band never achieved the same level of visibility after that, Becoming X lives on as the thumbnail summary of its mark on pop culture. The only Sneaker Pimps album to feature charismatic frontwoman Kelli Ali (then Kelli Drayton). It’s impossible to even think about Becoming X without bumping into the empty space left in the wake of her departure. Never mind that both the band and Ali put out their most musically adventurous work after splitting—whether either party likes it or not, their legacies will forever be tied to one another.
With Squaring the Circle, the first Sneaker Pimps effort in almost 20 years, core members Chris Corner and Liam Howe—who themselves went their separate ways in 2003 but have been teasing a new Sneaker Pimps release for six years now—appear to make peace with the most well-known chapter of their history. Even the album title itself functions as a self-conscious nod to the past. Once again, the band are presenting themselves as a trio, in what looks like a calculated effort to cultivate the same image as what we saw in those old photos 25 years ago. Perhaps it’s for the benefit of casual fans who haven’t kept up with all the fits and starts in the Sneaker Pimps saga since 2003.
Corner and Howe have brought other female vocalists in to sing on Sneaker Pimps material since Ali. However, Squaring the Circle will inevitably register as a return to their “classic” format, this time with former biomedical researcher Simonne Jones sharing lead vocal duties alongside Corner. A multi-instrumentalist, producer, and singer-songwriter in her own right, Jones’ background on paper reads like it would help invigorate the music, much as Ali did. After all, Corner and Howe have a history of giving others room to shine. After Ali, for example, though Corner took the helm as frontman, Sneaker Pimps were able to deviate sharply from what they had done prior, thanks in large part to a four-way creative dynamic that included drummer/programmer David Westlake and bassist Joe Wilson.
Though Westlake and Wilson initially joined to tour in support of Becoming X, they helped transform Sneaker Pimps into a “band” in more of a traditional sense for 1999’s Splinter and 2002’s Bloodsport. Undoubtedly, fans of those two records will feel their absence on Squaring The Circle as profoundly as those who still include “6 Underground” on playlists will surely pine for Ali. That the new material doesn’t repeat either the sultry electro-crackle of Becoming X or the organic gloom of the Westlake-Wilson period shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with this band’s track record.
Sure enough, on new tracks like “Paper Room”, “Lifeline”, and “Come Like the Cure”, Corner and Howe make a sharp left turn, fashioning their production more in the mold of, say, a folk-pop icon Joan Armatrading or even 1940s jazz singer backed by an orchestra. In those instances, they create a rather convincing sense of space, where it feels as if you can hear the proverbial pin drop, not unlike the sensation of sitting in a hushed classical concert hall designed to accentuate the most subtle acoustics.
Clearly, Corner and Howe are still in possession of the same bold streak that defines their career, for better or worse. At 16 tracks spanning an hour and seven minutes, Squaring the Circle moves along at such an unrelentingly slow pace that it induces an almost claustrophobic sense of being sealed into the music. Yes, Corner and Howe create a wide-open ambience, but they never quite achieve enough momentum to make you feel like you’re going anywhere. It’s as if the pair finally surrendered to taking its place in the “chill-out” pantheon, perennially fated to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Morcheeba, Zero 7, Lamb, and, of course, Massive Attack. The thing is, all of those acts—Sneaker Pimps included!—captured a much broader range of moods than the late-night “comedown” vibe that so often gets attributed to them.
Because they can be such adept stylists, it might be tempting for careless listeners to take Sneaker Pimps’ work at nothing more than face value. For example, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of generic songs that bear a surface-level resemblance to the new single “Alibis”, a song that (inadvertently, perhaps) spotlights a songwriting prowess that’s long overdue for recognition. Look past the spartan R&B-lite exterior, and you’ll find the nimble chord progressions and effortless hooks of old still intact. Sure, Becoming X and Splinter each display the production sensibilities of their day, but it can’t be said that Corner and Howe ever failed to put their unique stamp on them.
They were also reliable for lacing their work with a caustic edge seething just beneath the surface. This time, Corner and Howe (who wrote all the lyrics with longtime collaborator Ian Pickering) replace their penchant for spite with cries of despair. “Each day,” sings Jones on “SOS”, “a broken clock is true at least twice—twice the odds I give myself.” From start to finish, the references to self-loathing, impending crisis, and panic abound with alarming frequency. If someone close to you expressed these kinds of sentiments, you’d probably get a sinking feeling (or at least the feeling that they were sinking). But for the most part, the music doesn’t sink so much as drift. As such, an album that could have taken listeners through a more viscerally unsettling dark night of the soul all too often succumbs to a numbing featurelessness.
It’s not that Corner and Howe have lost their ability to entice the ear. They deserve credit—as usual—for the immaculate sheen they put on every sound they employ. New tunes like “Tranquility Trap”, “Child in the Dark”, and “Immaculate Hearts” all show that Corner and Howe are perfectly capable of recreating the somber, reflective mood of latter-day Depeche Mode. Meanwhile, the dancey “Stripes” recaptures the electro-goth throb of Depeche Mode’s classic period.
Meanwhile, the mix lovingly spotlights Corner’s acoustic guitar work, a crucial element that runs like a connecting thread through the whole Sneaker Pimps catalog. Still, considering the sheer range and volume of production work they’ve done individually since 2003—with Corner masterminding his IAMX project and Howe at the boards behind artists like FKA Twigs, Adele, and Lana Del Rey—it’s hard to fathom why they wouldn’t spice this material with more of their distinct flavor.
To be fair, Squaring the Circle is dense enough with sonic information that there’s undoubtedly a long-term reward in pushing yourself to absorb it. But it would have been better for Sneaker Pimps to challenge themselves (and us) a little more overtly like when they assemble an angular synth figure, a counter-rhythmic vocal line from Jones. The electronic beat also tugs the rhythm in yet another direction on “Love Me Stupid”. It’s a tune whose structural pretzel logic achieves a kind of cubism in sound that’s quite enjoyable to get spun around in.
Moreover, it’s as if Corner and Howe haven’t learned from past mistakes. Ali was dismissed because, by their own admission at the time, the rest of the band refused to include her in the writing process. With that in mind, it’s all the more puzzling that Squaring the Circle doesn’t draw anything from Jones’ unique background. We’re left to wonder how much emotional contouring she could have brought to the material as a polymath musician/painter/scientist who has participated in HIV research and worked in Ghana and the Brazilian Amazon.
Alas, for much of this album, Corner and Howe play it safer than even their talents would warrant, given what we already know they’re capable of.