If ExitingARM fails as a pop album, it is only because Subtle refuses to ever be pigeonholed in such a way.
Speaking with Pitchfork in late 2007, Subtle’s Adam “Doseone” Drucker (Dose, for short) explained ExitingARM, the title of his band’s latest album, as a manifestation of a key stage in our species’ evolution, the mixed blessing that is our ability to turn our thoughts into utility:
"The human mind started to make room for free time. And the arm became the only exit for the mind, in this world, as the mind developed. So you have war through the arm, and you have the various arts, all coming out through the arm. So as this develops, the free mind starts to expand, and nervousness enters the world, and fear of galactic proportions."
In other words, Dose sees fear as being less a result of perceived external threats than an acknowledgement of our potentially nefarious internal drives (which in turn, naturally, create external threats). The expansion of the free mind that he describes becomes as much an invitation for corruption as it does for enlightenment, a dual-edge that encompasses the entire spectrum from creation to destruction, from making art to making war. This is compounded even further by our species’ collectivism; the popular denouncement of war, after all, is rooted not so much in our individual impulses toward warlike behavior (an ignoble impulse, yes, but a human impulse nonetheless) than the institutionalization of war. The nervousness that Dose speaks of, then, derives not from what “I” am capable of, but rather what “we” are capable of, our collective power relinquished to a ruling elite that we recognize as inherently warlike simply by understanding the destructive potential of our own thoughts and actions.
A daunting way to begin approaching any album, for sure, much less the band in question’s self-professed “pop” outing, but Dose has never been one to shy away from such complexity. ExitingARM is, after all, the third and concluding chapter in “The Epic of Yes”, an oblique narrative following the exploits of a fledgling multiracial rapper begun amid the lo-fi atmosphere of 2004’s A New White and further developed on 2006’s masterful For Hero: For Fool. As the previous album concluded, Hour Hero Yes (as he is referred to throughout), had weathered the perils of fame and making art in a commodity culture, leading him to dive through a door in the floor that winds up in an Alice in Wonderland-like underworld. Ruled by a duo of illuminati-esque figures called the Ungods, Yes is imprisoned and forced to make an unending stream of catchy but apathetic and fear-inducing pop songs for the world above, which the artist in captivity codes with subversive messages in order to alert the public to the truth about his captors.
Yes chronicles the entire saga in a journal called The Ought Almanac of Amassed Fact, Volume One, torn fragments of which adorn the CD booklet in place of the album’s actual lyrics. The entire 2,000-some word text is presented on a sprawling website, a meticulously designed if maddeningly obtuse tome that does not illuminate the text as much as it only further serves to highlight Dose’s simultaneous tendencies toward wild ambition and willful obscurity. Much more fascinating, anyway, is the very conceit that ExitingARM is based upon: that everything in the underworld that Yes has found himself trapped in, and thus every bit of music and lyrics on ExitingARM, is constructed solely out of the text of the previous two records. The result is a fascinating tension, the idea that the evil alternate world that seeks to corrupt all that Yes creates is one of Yes/Subtle’s own invention.
ExitingARM may be best interpreted as Dose’s archive of his own fears, an admission of anxiety over the fragile nature of his art. Yes’ talent makes him an ideal tool for the fear-mongering establishment; how far off are Dose and Subtle from being susceptible to similar pollution? Dose has gone on record as not wanting to write anything with the overt topicality that he sees as characterizing the work of Conor Obsert or Bruce Springsteen (whose “Born in the U.S.A.” was, after all, famously co-opted by Reagan’s America) but ExitingARM is, in its own inverted way, as vitriolic a statement as any modern protest anthem. The difference resides mainly in how Dose’s paranoid, cynical gaze faces just as much inward as it does outward. A simplistic, though not likely untrue, reading of Dose’s text might view ExitingARM as a petulant tirade against the mainstream (and indeed, the album is rich with thinly veiled swipes at MTV and the record industry), but at its heart is a genuine sense of dread over the idea that our creations are all potential Frankenstein’s Monsters, dangerously out of our control the moment our ideas are materialized into any kind of “product".
ExitingARM is an album that revels in paradoxes. Just as the desire to create art collides with the fear of humanity’s destructive nature, the music itself is fraught with similar dualities. When For Hero: For Fool produced an actual single -- in the indie-rock blogosphere, at least -- with the spastic, propulsive “The Mercury Craze", Dose found the song’s (relative) accessibility pointing the way toward this next record. And indeed, first single “Unlikely Rock Shock” is very much this album’s “The Mercury Craze", surrounding Dose’s characteristically dense prose (frequently indecipherable without the help of a lyric sheet) with a hooky but meaningless chant-along chorus layered overtop of a square, arena-ready drum stomp. Heard in advance of the album’s release, “Unlikely Rock Shock” sounded like a near parody, the band’s half-serious conception of what a catchy pop hit sounds like. Placed square in the center of ExitingARM, though, the song suddenly makes sense as a facet of the album’s overall narrative, a literalization of alter ego Yes’ forced pop songs.
As any existing Subtle fans probably suspected, then, the advance hype on ExitingARM as the band’s “pop” record turns out to be something of a misnomer, a wink and a nudge in reference to the album’s convoluted premise. The band continues to dabble effortlessly in pop, electronica and hip-hop while deftly avoiding the formulaic constraints of any particular genre. Dose still sings/raps in constantly introverted haze, his amazingly agile vocal dynamics fluctuating seemingly at random, as if keeping time with the flurry of sounds in his head. Any hints of melodic forthrightness, though, are quickly undone by the band’s sheer eccentricity. The title track rides in on a wave of buzzsaw guitars, but never manages to push Dose’s vocals toward any kind of melodic stability. The serene and oddly beautiful “Day Dangerous” is awash in gentle electronic textures that only gradually reveal a slow-building melody, but neither that nor the synth-pop blips that run through “Sick Soft Perfection,” nor the glitchy electropop atmosphere of “Take to Take” will turn any of these songs into The Postal Service.
So, if ExitingARM fails as a pop album, it is only because Subtle refuses to ever be pigeonholed in such a way. If it fails as an attempt at an ironic pop album, it only because “irony”, at least in the Beck/Malkmus sense, is not a word in Dose’s otherwise expansive vocabulary. If it is also, it must be said, a less dynamic or immediately captivating record than For Hero: For Fool -- an album that I suspect I will be counting among the decade’s finest in a year and a half’s time -- it may be because artworks as ambitious and uncompromising as this are, more often than not, naturally prone to indulgence and imperfection. In the end, perhaps ExitingARM, for all of its knotted statements and implications, represents nothing more or less than Dose falling down the rabbit hole of his own imagination. Choose to follow and find what a confounding, uneasy, and exciting place it is to be.