The Chemical Brothers probably thought that making a record more bombastic than the "Block Rockin' Beats" they dropped on their last album would have entailed dynamiting Big Ben. They apparently decided not to even try. "Surrender," the Manchester duo's third full-length, is a subtler response to "Dig Your Own Hole" (1997). But while reworking their sound with more house and trancy techno is an admirable refutation of the beat blast that made them semi-famous in the first place, they certainly didn't need to be so goddamn smug about it.
"Surrender" subverts the rocktronia equation (pop structure + electronic instruments = Gap commercial) that's been used by every hack musician with a sequencer. The Chemicals, instead, want to make the pop world that they've almost infiltrated get with the rave aesthetic that they grew up on. It's the electronica version of a rock band making a roots record, but the Dylan-esque diffidence is unbecoming. Early work may have rocked out the Platonic ideal of flobby, futurist beats, but the egghead sense of construction never felt the funk fluidly enough to convince anyone that the Chemical Brothers wanted the world half as bad as their red-nosed copycat, Fatboy Slim.
Yes, I know the big beat that the Chemicals formalized isn't about funk so much as a highly theoretical concoction of faux populism and ingratiating hedonism that's supposed to explode and make Fun. But so was Grand Funk Railroad's, and the Chems should have worked on perfecting their synthesis of Eddie Bo and C-3PO before they went searching for their lost souls.
Not that the integrity isn't heartening. Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands are 28, which is a tough, contemplative age to be, especially when there's a world of eager boosters out there expecting you to do for techno what Bob Marley couldn't do for reggae in the '70s -- take a fairly obscure genre of music into the American mainstream while keeping its rock soul intact. But listening to the album's European single, "Hey Boy Hey Girl," or the Noel Gallagher (of Oasis) showpiece "Let Forever Be" -- rave-ups that imply a big payoff that never comes -- I couldn't help hearing people alienated from their own very ponderous labor.
"Surrender," at times, seems to be vaguely about sending dance music and rock 'n' roll back to the world of childhood dreams and pet sounds. That actually means watery psychedelia -- some of it evangelically pretty, some of it maudlin -- and a dollop of Hope Sandoval (the Mazzy Star singer whose no-beat reverie "Asleep From Day" ends with the sound of a toy music box) mixed in with fluid, but never quite elevating, boogies like the post-Headhunters astral house of "Got Glint?" The whole thing puts the Chemicals in a classic conundrum: how to navigate the middle ground. Listening to them try to answer their own question is as frustrating as watching someone try to break-dance with a beer in his hand.