The Chemical Brothers: We Are the Night
It's not merely that the Chems were beginning to seem outdated, they seemed -- in James Murphy's immortal words -- to be losing their edge.
For those who came of age in recent years, long after the late '90s heyday of popular electronic music, it may be hard to understand just how important, how downright revolutionary, the Chemical Brothers once were. There was once a time when the worlds of dance music and rock & roll had never intersected; there was once a time when electronic sounds were on the absolute bleeding edge of the new; there was once a time when the likes of hip-hop, psychedlic rock, glam, acid house, and acoustic folk had never really been mixed. All of the genre-bending, postmodern multi-lingual musical catholicism which we take for granted now, came of age in the 1990s, and while it would of course be overstating matters to say that the Chemical Brothers singlehandedly ushered in the current age of modern pop, you wouldn't be wrong if you were to say that they, more than perhaps anyone else with the possible exception of Beck circa Odelay, exemplified the era's infectious post-grunge musical optimism.
But that was then, and it's very easy for a keen cutting edge to dull with repeated use. The Chemical Brothers never really lost it -- they've been producing consistently good music for a decade and a half -- but they did lose their impetus for constant innovation a while back. Come With Us was an average album buoyed by excellent singles, while Push the Button seemed unfinished in places and lacked consistent tone. Neither album approached the singular achievement of their first three, Exit Planet Dust (1995), Dig Your Own Hole (1997) and Surrender (1999). I wrote a glowing review of Push the Button for this site when it was released in 2004, but time has not been kind: the album is still studded with some great tracks, but as a whole is falls strangely flat, dominated by a sparse aesthetic that verges on peevishness on tracks like "The Boxer" and "Believe" (oddly enough, both tracks were released as singles). First single "Galvanize" found immortality as the lynchpin of Budweiser's televison ad campaign -- and while I don't begrudge them for making a pile of money with their music, it's telling that "Galvanize" was perhaps the Chems' worst single to date, uncharacteristically empty-headed and musically transparent.
Long before We Are The Night, I knew the Chems' sixth album was do-or-die time: either they had to make some kind of forward momentum, or it was probably going to be diminishing returns from here on out. Electronic music is such a ruthlessly Darwinian field that even the most well-intentioned artists can easily be overcome by circumstances: new sounds and styles are born and die in the space of a heartbeat, and in this climate its easy to overlook the subtle charms of strong songwriting and old-fashioned musicianship. But it's not merely that the Chems were beginning to seem outdated -- that would be of no consequence if the music were still phenomenal -- they seemed, in James Murphy's immortal words, to be losing their edge, losing sight of their singular strengths as they receded further and further from the spotlight. It's a small hop from obscurity to irrelevance.
Thankfully, my worry was entirely misplaced: We Are the Night is as good an album as the Chemical Brothers have recorded since Surrender, hearkening back to their roots while also incorporating contemporary sounds to gratifying effect. The Chems got their start as sonic magpies, borrowing and stealing from their favorite groups to create something that sounded entirely new, if not wholly unfamiliar. (The Beatles meet Public Enemy! Meat Beat Manifest jams with Bob Dylan!) It's been a few years since they were at the top of the food chain, and they sound just a little bit hungry, working over a wide range of contemporary influences without once seeming obsequious or awkward -- looking forward instead of back.
But first, the album begins with a restatement of principles. After a brief, bass-rumble of an introduction ("No Path to Follow"), the album kicks into gear with "We Are the Night". The beginning of the track hearkens back to "Out of Control" and the Surrender-era B-side "Enjoyed", before launching into a krautrock-inspired mechanical beat. After building the tension with a couple minutes of implacable rhythm, the track explodes with a dense melodic chorus that acts with the propulsive force of Dorothy landing in the technicolor land of Oz from the dismal black & white of Depression-era Kansas. It's almost the archetypal Chemical Brothers track: sacrificing nothing in terms of dancefloor-ready energy. It's also a well-crafted pop song, with a powerfully evocative melodic chorus that serves as a release for the accumulated tension of the rhythmic verses.
The Klaxons show up for "All Rights Reversed", a hard rock stomper that strikes me as far more convincing than anything the Klaxons have so far produced on their own. The insistent percussive piano pounding that opens up the rhythm introduces a dark, downbeat mood that brings to mind nothing so much as the likes of Nine Inch Nails, electronically-minded industrial acts whose work holds as much appeal for hard rockers as DJs. It's the hardest track the duo have produced since "Setting Sun", way back in 1997 -- but again, the song succeeds on the basis of its structure and its sound, building the track from simple elements and creating increasing complexity. Everything comes together in the swooping choruses, but instead of the Chems' typically numinous mode, there's something a bit more unsettling at work here -- I am reminded of UNKLE's "Lonely Soul".
"Saturate" is an abbreviated version of a track that was previously released as the eighth installment in the Chems' Electronic Battle Weapon series -- usually advance releases of potential singles, often significantly different from the versions that see the light of day through legitimate release. It's one of the most interesting tracks on the album, a definite departure for the Chems that owes as much to the minimal microhouse of the Kompakt label as anything else they've ever done. The track begins with a simple synthesizer riff, joined by a handful of slight percussive elements to create what would otherwise be a fairly decent track -- but then, just when you think you have it pegged, a funky, organic drum roll crashes onto the track, building to a climactic chorus. It's the perfect synthesis of two seemingly disparate approaches to making dance music: the pointedly artificial and the ecstatically organic, thesis and antithesis, the evocative potential of pure techno combined with the rhythmic backbone of sample-based breakbeats.
The album's first single is also, at least on initial exposure, the album's most atypical number. "Do It Again", featuring the vocals of Ali Love, doesn't really sound like a Chemical Brothers track: it sounds more like a Justin Timberlake track, as produced by Timberland. It's hardly a new influence. The Chems have long held up Timberland as one of their favorite contemporary producers, and have even dedicated a pair of tracks ostensibly to his influence, the Dig Your Own Hole-era B-side "Morning Lemon" and Surrender's "Orange Wedge". Ali Love seems to have been recruited specifically for his vocal resemblance to Timberlake -- his tender falsetto is nowhere near as supple as Timberlake's, but otherwise he does a good job, delivering lines like "Gonna bring that bubblegum, / Blowing up my cranium" with all the verve of the man himself. It took me a few listens to come around to the track -- especially considering that the single version accompanying the video is a particularly unflattering edit -- but it's grown on me. Essentially, those of us dance music fans who were surprised and gratified to hear Timberlake venturing into the realm of honest-to-Gosh house music on "Sexy Back" are getting a response track, a jocular shot across the bow for those pop producers who have been pillaging dance music for the past few decades -- now it's a two-way street.
"Das Spiegel" and "Burst Generator" are dance tracks in the old-school mold, albeit with crucial differences. The melodic bric-a-brac of the former adds up to something much greater than the sum of its parts: there's a melodica line that brings to mind past Chems collaborators the Magic Numbers, and the joyful baby giggles and funny synth shrieks seem to concoct a much more light-hearted and soothingly placid atmosphere than we one would usually expect from stomping house track. "Burst Generator", on the other hand, plunges into darker territory almost immediately, pairing a sinister motorized bassline and mechanical rhythm with a looming electric guitar progression that threatens to overwhelm the proceedings, a la Dan Deacon's sublimely massive synth lines, or the climax of Underworld's "Kittens".
The point where I knew that We Are the Night was not necessarily a very good album but possibly even a great one was "The Salmon Dance". Sure, it's a weird rap track that features a conversation between Fatlip and, um, Sammy the Salmon, but six albums in, it's nice to see the Chems loosening their proverbial ties beyond, say, cheeky song titles. It might be stretching the point to call "The Salmon Dance" a classic track in the mold of, say, "Block Rocking Beats" or "Hey Boy Hey Girl", but I'll be damned if it isn't one of the most fun tracks I've heard all year. When Fatlip asks the listener to "put your hands to the side as silly as it seems, / And shake your body like a salmon floating upstream", it's hard not to imagine that everyone involved in the track had huge smiles on their faces during the recording. Situated exactly halfway through the proceedings (a nice pause in between the harder dance tracks), you couldn't ask for a better signifier of the renewed enthusiasm and good humor with which the Chems approached this album.
The Chems have always produced some the most expertly-sequenced albums in music, and if Push the Button floundered slightly on this score, We Are The Night represents a much more engaging experience. Whereas the first two thirds of the album established and sustained high-tempo, with punctuated bursts of dread, humor and sensuality, the final stretch introduces a much more sustained and contemplative mood. "A Modern Midnight Conversation" is deceptively minimal, with minor-key basslines and wafting vocals (exhorting the listener to "Listen to your heart / Don't run away"), but the track builds beyond a few signature retro synthesizer parts into a much more imposing and luminous melodic progression, finally dissolving into peaceful mist. But the mist itself is merely the opening salvo of "Battle Scars", featuring the vocals of Willy Mason. I must admit that "Battle Scars" is probably the least impressive track on the album, awkwardly placed in the penultimate position. It's not necessarily a bad track, simply rather dull. The Chems are natural collaborators, and their instincts, which are usually spot-on, naturally tend towards flattering the abilities of their guests. Just look at their work with folks as disparate as Bernard Sumner, Kele Okerke and Beth Orton -- they know how to make their vocalists sound as good as possible. "Battle Scars" seems to be an attempt at something similar in tone to their track with the Flaming Lips, "The Golden Path", but whatever his virtues, Willy Mason is just nowhere near as charismatic as Wayne Coyne, and his deep baritone just sort of sits there in front of the Chems' uncharacteristically muted beats. It may grow on me, but for now it's the album's only real demerit -- a shame, because with one less track the album could have been just about perfect.
As it is, it recovers in fine form. "Harpoon" is not even two and a half minutes long, a brief instrumental passage with pulsating synths reminiscent of something you might expect from M83 or Caribou -- a placid interlude before "The Drugs Won't Help You Now". Not quite a psychedelic thunderclap like the era-defining "Private Psychedelic Reel" or the lesser (but still satisfying) "Surface to Air", it's more a ballad, showcasing the same kind of romantic inclinations that marked Exit Planet Dust's "Alive Alone" and "Asleep from Day" off Surrender. It's also maybe the best track on the entire album, starting slow and quiet while building to a deliriously lovely climax of synthesizer noise and robotic harmony. Indie up-and-comers Midlake may seem like an unusual match for the Chems, but their soft-toned, unironic sweetness is a perfect compliment to the track's elegiac mood. "I thought we were going to go up the field a ways", they sing, "To join all the other living souls / But you never came".
In a moment of fear,
You dig in your heels.
The pills won't help you now,
Won't you come?
Inverting the masculine conventions of dance music, the Chemical Brothers arrive at a surprisingly reassuring and hopeful destination. Finally coming full-circle with their explicit rejection of the drug culture that has always existed uneasily in tandem with dance culture, the statement is simultaneously mature and reinvigorated, an enthusiastic reaffirmation of principles from a duo that had seemed, if not lost, on the verge of being lost.
I think any group that loses its capacity to surprise has lost its way pretty definitively. In case you haven't guessed from this impassioned review, I'm not an unbiased observer, I am very much a partisan in this instance: I wanted to hear that the Chemical Brothers hadn't lost the spark of genius that animated their early albums, that they hadn't yet succumbed to the same mid-career lethargy that dissipates the powers of any artist who survives their youthful peak only to fade into graceful mediocrity. Their saving grace has always been their intelligence and their unerring sense of emotional expressiveness: at their most enthusiastic and aggressive, they still retain a keenly cerebral sense of musical depth, and their attention to the nuances of songwriting gives their music an understated authority almost wholly lacking from contemporary dance music. If Come With Us and Push the Button presented a progressively streamlined vision of the Chemical Brothers' sound, We Are the Night is refreshingly lush, a return to form for one of the most adventurous groups in contemporary music.
Who would have thought that the Chemical Brothers could come back with one of the best indie-rock ballads of the year, not to mention a hardcore bubblegum pop track, a Kompakt-worthy bit of minimal house, and even a novelty rap song about a talking fish? It may be all over the place, but really, it all makes sense because it's all rooted in the same all-encompassing attitude of multi-generic eclecticism that made the big-beat sound such a potent force way back in the halcyon days of 1995. Some may see them as dilettantes, or a dumbed-down pop crossover act, but for anyone who cares enough to pay attention, the Chemical Brothers remain one of the most satisfyingly diverse and consistently rewarding groups in modern music. We Are the Night is not a return to past glories, but a brave, occasionally faltering but massively enjoyable lunge in new directions, the sound of two frighteningly smart musicians emerging with confidence from a period of uncertainty. For anyone who may have wandered away from the party, it's time to head back inside: the superstar DJs have found their second wind.