Like little stars.
It’s hard to imagine a worse time for the release of the Chemical Brothers’ new record, “Come With Us,” than this January. Along with bombastic peers Fatboy Slim, the Prodigy, Daft Punk and, most recently, Basement Jaxx, the Chemical Brothers graced the 1990s with some of the most cutting-edge office-party music the world has ever known. In 2002, though, there are far fewer cutting-edge offices, and those still toiling in them don’t feel much like partying. On this, their fourth album, the English duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons return to their euphoric hands-in-the-air techno roots after the pastoral psychedelic pop of their last record, “Surrender.” It’s excellently crafted, grandiose and rousing, and right now, it sounds ridiculous.
Techno music, which began as the dystopian dream of Detroit kids living amid the rubble of a dead industrial era, morphed in the last decade into the soundtrack of a thousand fast companies dreaming of big-pop IPOs. It was the ubiquitous backbeat of the frenetic years when corporations bought up the dregs of bohemia, cloaked themselves in street cred and went hurling heedlessly toward an imagined future of endless opportunity, progress, speed and money. Those years are over now, that future revealed as a mirage. So where does that leave the music?
For now, in a weird limbo. Commercially, the mid-to-late-’90s conceit that electronic music would wrest the airwaves from guitar rock dinosaurs has proved as fanciful as the idea that online video rental could be a billion-dollar business. Artistically, mainstream producers are going to have to find a way to make their jubilant, triumphant dance music relevant in subdued, precarious times.
A few years ago, insouciant acts like Daft Punk and later Basement Jaxx released warm, funky, exultant records that were just right for nightclubs and high-tech launch parties packed with gamines in $300 shoes sloshing day-glo cocktails. Both debuts (for Basement Jaxx, a collection of singles) were shot through with a giddy enthusiasm that spilled over into their reception. I thought they would be stars, and I wasn’t alone.
In 2001, both acts released new albums, and no one seemed to notice. In Daft Punk’s case, their record “Discovery” came off like a parody of the French house craze they helped create. Basement Jaxx’s “Rooty” was largely ignored by a public exhausted by the volcano of hype that accompanied their last effort, “Remedy.” The two most talked-about bands of the year, the Strokes and the White Stripes, were old-fashioned rock bands of the sort that DJs were supposed to displace. And all that was before Sept. 11.
It’s brave of the Chemical Brothers to release a celebratory new record into a somber new world, to try to revive megaclub-style block-rocking beats at a time when a lot of people are cocooned at home. But they can’t pull it off. There are a few really good tracks on “Come With Us” — in fact, the Chemicals succeed whenever they depart from the kind of bellicose party music they made famous. The duo isn’t washed up, but the genre they pioneered and the era it defined certainly is.
Walking around downtown Manhattan with “Come With Us” on my Walkman was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. On the eponymous opening track, the frenetic, suspenseful strings and ascending beats all built to a cathartic climax, exploding in squelching waves of sound seemingly made to unleash dance floor frenzy. Yet in the listless streets lined with shops offering desperate going-out-of-business sales, the music felt as inappropriate as Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” would in a shrink’s waiting room. “Come With Us” begins by referencing the kind of lost-in-space sci-fi cinematic kitsch that dominated the early rave scene — a gesture that might seem charmingly retro in, say, 2010 but that for now is just tired. Similarly, the pulsing intensity of “It Began In Afrika” — more a tribute to Afrika Bambaataa’s futuristic electro than to African percussion and polyrhythms — comes off as embarrassingly dated. Two years ago, it was achingly trendy to reference the early ’80s futurism of the Bronx-based pioneer. Today, it bespeaks a lack of new ideas. Other songs are fine but generic: I’d certainly dance to the spare, funk-tinged “Denmark” if I heard it at a club, but I’d just as certainly forget it the next day.
“Come With Us” does have inspired moments. Its first single, “Star Guitar,” is a radiant wash of trancy synth melodies and ecstatic builds that could have been released in 1995 but sounds just as heavenly today. “The State We’re In,” a gossamer dream of a song with vocals by longtime Chemical Brothers collaborator Beth Orton, is even more haunting than the digital folk she made with William Orbit on her first solo record.
After all, when the music is good enough, it doesn’t matter if the band is slow on the uptake. Madonna caught on to electronic music almost a decade after everyone else, in 1998, but that didn’t make “Ray of Light” any less divine.
Great music, like all great art, should transcend its time. The best electronic music does just that. The slightly melancholy exultation of “Strings of Life,” by techno innovator Derrick May’s Rhythim Is Rhythim, soars with the same uplift now as it did upon its release 15 years ago. Back then, it was acclaimed for its stylistic innovation. Now, the forms invented by people like May are omnipresent, but the song is still special because somehow it’s full of the energy that drew so many misfits to club culture in the first place. In its striving, frenetic rhythm, you can almost hear the collective yearning of people without a lot of power or money pulling themselves out of the mundane by sheer force of fabulous imagination.
Electronic music was largely denuded of that underground energy by the time the Chemical Brothers released their first record, “Exit Planet Dust,” in 1995. By then, a new sensibility was dawning — one that merged the childish optimism of the rave scene with celebrity glamour and high tech money. Techno music was once the provenance of gay black and Latino men determined to dance amid the desolation of humbled cities like Detroit and Chicago. It developed into the propulsive soundtrack of the fat years when everyone seemed to forget about the rapacious, Enronesque side of capitalism, so entranced were they with the idea of getting rich while staying cool. By the late ’90s, when globe-trotting DJs were earning tens of thousands of dollars a night, it was clear that techno was both the preferred music of big business and a big business itself.
This wasn’t because bands like the Chemical Brothers sold out — it was because their exuberant, crisply produced music perfectly matched the zeitgeist. Eventually, of course, the Chemical Brothers’ pop success — particularly after they collaborated with English stars like Oasis’ Noel Gallagher — made the duo way too famous for them to retain their cool among factions of serious electronic music fans. But this disdain had little to do with the music itself. After all, in Spin, Simon Reynolds reported that snotty DJs would play Chemical Brothers records when they were released under aliases.
Had “Come With Us” been released three years ago, it would have felt vital at the time, though much of it would still have been exhausted by now. That’s the difference between great artistry and good timing, and it’s a difference that only becomes clear in retrospect. Yet in the past, the Chemical Brothers have had more than time on their side. Today, much of their 1999 record “Surrender” still sounds fresh. There the duo traded their testosterone beats for pop experimentation on songs like the languid, introspective “Asleep From Day,” with Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, or the Primal Scream-style sunshine psychedelia of “Let Forever Be,” again with Oasis’ Noel Gallagher.
So the Chemical Brothers were moving forward, but it seems that nostalgia has dragged them back. Maybe that’s where their mistake was — even in our hysterically sped-up trend cycle, it’s way too early to be reviving 1998, especially when they haven’t come up with ways to make old sounds newly relevant.
Electronic music, like pop in general, is at a confusing and exciting juncture right now. All the fads of the last 10 years have evaporated seemingly overnight. Teenybopper pop, bling bling hedonism, smooth Pottery Barn lounge, swanky francophilia — all suddenly over. Trendy new acts like the naughty-girl Peaches are just recycling the raunch of Lil’ Kim and porn-inspired electronic producer Howie B. Sure, the neo-soul of divas like Angie Stone is still vibrant, and countless scenes are percolating below the surface, creating fascinating music most people will never hear. But the culture at large desperately needs new currents to wash away the stale excesses of the ’90s.
That leaves the field wide open for innovation to bubble up and for people working outside genre boundaries to get a hearing. It’s a ripe moment for something fresh to explode forth and help define the anxious new period we’ve all been marooned in — after all, as the history of techno itself proves, the best music is always made in uncertain times. The Chemical Brothers have shown themselves to be impeccable craftsmen, equally masterful at creating romantic, crystalline textures and skanky, raucous bounce. Hopefully, the next time they ask us to come with them, they’ll take us somewhere new.
Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).More Michelle Goldberg.
Like little stars.
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