It has been alleged that we are living in a golden age for creative artists. The argument goes: Kickstarter and its crowdsourced ilk have made it ever-easier for artists to obtain funding for their projects, which in other eras would have been shoved aside by various gatekeepers of taste and cost-control. This apparent sea-change has enabled niche hardware projects like the Pebble smartwatch to be funded, manufactured, and distributed, and it has also abetted the revival of the ancient adventure game genre – a genre which enjoyed a golden age back when software came in boxes, boxes that specified that the floppy-based game would only work on “color Macs.”
Of course, both projects benefit from the hyper-specific demographics that would be aware of their existence in the first place: people who use Kickstarter AND who want email on their watches AND/OR who were old enough/curious enough to have played classics like Quest for Glory IV. That’s a small, and dare I say élite, demographic. This isn’t so much democracy and it is aristocracy or oligarchy (depending on perspective and your interpretation of Greek roots) – it is a system that rewards individuals and organizations who are either already tied-into a specific demographic (as above), first/early-movers, or independently famous. It’s the same set of reasons that explains why there are so few true grassrootsily wealthy YouTube celebrities.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of music services (driven by “the internet,” natch) like Spotify, Rdio, and Google’s new Google Play Music All Access, the consolidation of the book world into Amazon’s ereader + distribution empire (in which objects are not sold but licensed, and in which alternative currencies serve to likely degrade the value of real money over time), and the centralization of “the internet”‘s apparently meager knowledge into the anonymity of Wikipedia has, as referenced in my previous entry, made it such that artists are given less reward for their work or contributions.
Coherent statements like albums or books once had the weight of momentous events: the object (and the importance of its physicality, as a disc or paperback or whatever, can’t be overstated) had an unambiguous provenance, it was something that belonged to the creator and to which others could only have access via payment or proximity (i.e., going to a concert or hearing it via radio), and, most importantly, it wasn’t consolidated and decontextualized by being forcibly folded into a stream of similar works.
The decontextualization of albums, for example, within the vast sea of Spotify is less an indictment of information overload than it is an indictment of the increasingly screwy economics of the music business. Record labels have had a rough century, having seen unbelievably profitable CD sales dry up in the face of the advent of iTunes, as well as the “open” access provided by Napster and its pirate descendants, but now they seem to be clawing back, slowly: they are the licensing gatekeepers for every streaming service (Spotify, Rdio, All Access), and those services all pay artists ever less money, meaning that the primary benefit of music being accessed (even randomly) no longer goes to the artist, but to the stream provider and to the label. As usual, the “progress” provided by the ease-of-use of these services disguises the rather harsh economic power-grabs by the persons who made them possible in the first place. “Progress,” despite all of its connotations, has no clear moral dimension.
So against this strange economic backdrop, we see odd artifacts like this:
An album poster with a label’s name (Columbia, in this case) so prominently featured feels like something from a different era: the 1970s, perhaps. The album it advertises – Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (hereafter “RAM”) – is already one of the biggest musical and cultural phenomena of the year, even prior to its proper release here in America next Tuesday (May 21). But the pizzaz and conscious rusticity of its marketing is hardly the sign of a sea-change in how the majority of artists either make or sell their music; rather, it’s a bright emblem of how, here at the end of the rainbow of technological “progress” (the democratization of music-making via software and of music-consumption via filesharing and broadband networking), we can see capitalistic inequality writ large (I guess I could use a “pot of gold” metaphor, which would fit with the rainbow theme, but we’ll just leave that alone). In other words, ironically, only artists as big and fiscally secure as Daft Punk could afford to indulge the older, more democratic, and more label-centric model (from the 1990s and earlier) of music’s economics (physical units sold for higher prices) that is under siege from those labels and technologists.
The New York Times summarized the current situation as such:
“Of course, the intangible qualities of feel and vibe exalted by Daft Punk are out of reach for most of today’s young music makers, whose do-it-yourself dance tracks rely on the technology that propelled Daft Punk’s career in the ‘90s. A kid in a bedroom with a laptop and software can make records that sound like a million bucks. Making music the way Daft Punk has for “Random Access Memories” actually requires a million bucks, or more.”
While it’s arguably true that DIY synths and setups have allowed thousands of persons to make high-quality dubstep and house music during the 2000s and 2010s, Daft Punk themselves were never particularly reliant on “technology” (here assigned the agency that I recently ruminated on and rejected) or a particular workmanlike ethos. Even their early work attracted much attention from labels, and Virgin Records ended up bankrolling their debut, Homework. The mid-1990s were a time of label largesse, when much money was spent to market expensive, elaborate records in genres that paradoxically both demanded and wouldn’t have existed as we knew them without such generosity – I’m thinking mainly of the widescreen drama of that era’s drum and bass (Goldie, Roni Size, et al) alternative rock (Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers), and the eventual refinement of early-90s rave and house (the type deftly reprised by Zomby on his original Where Were U in ’92; coincidentally, Zomby, now bankrolled by 4AD, is on the verge of releasing a grand double-album this summer, which is as a good an artifact of the current era as RAM) into the self-aware album-sized units created by the likes of, well, Daft Punk.
So it isn’t really “technology” that has led to the current dichotomy, in which we have DIY artists with dayjobs, technically simple music (whether bedroom dubstep or, perhaps most tellingly, the indie rock of Grizzly Bear, whose financial travails are detailed in great detail here), and anonymizing distribution channels like Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud on one side and wealthy artists who can afford to really explore the vagaries of “the album” and genre on the other. Rather, it’s that newfangled “technology” called money. The former category described above has had to work ever-harder and produce more and more music with ever-less reward, while the latter category has been able to bide its time and release grand artistic statements at intervals usually longer than two years. The elite, basically, now operate a model that used to be the default for everyone. The much-bemoaned death of the album is the product not of technological “progress,” but of economic disparity.
Daft Punk’s career is one long cliffs notes to the economic history of modern music. They’ve spent the last decade growing increasingly famous while “doing” basically nothing – prior to RAM, they’ve released only album, the widely panned Human After All (hereafter HAA), in the past decade, while dabbling in projects like the TRON: Legacy soundtrack. They were sampled by Kanye West and fetishized by LCD Soundsystem. Their fame accrued not via the release of material or frequent touring, but by their idolization by the music press and their fellow prominent artists. This tack recalls how America’s rich gain income via methods like carried interest, rather than the traditional, more optically pleasing means of income tied to work-hours and visible exertion.
So how should we understand RAM, eight years after HAA? There probably won’t be another album this year (other than perhaps the ever culturally-aware Vampire Weekend’s third album) that requires more backstory and context to digest. Basically, RAM is the next part of a conversation that began on HAA and maybe even partially on 2001’s strangely acclaimed Discovery (“strangely,” because opinion was so divided at first and only seemed to swell as the cultural hubbub around the band grew over the subsequent decade). HAA was described by its creators as “pure improvisation,” perhaps not the most intuitive (to listeners) terms in which to analyze an album marked by its almost robotic repetitiveness and overwhelming irony borne out in songs entitled “Emotion” and “The Prime Time of Your Life.”
But HAA was aesthetically raw, with tape hiss on songs like “Make Love” and prominent cheap-sounding 1970s guitars on “Robot Rock,” tied together by its almost comical but seemingly authentic love of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” It was a human effort, in terms of its ties to consciously “analog” sounds like guitars, uneven production/mastering, and occasional freakouts (the ending to “The Prime Time of Your Life”), but it used these relatively low budget techniques and approaches in the service of making a statement about the trends toward homogenization and automation in contemporaneous big-budget music (they were right: the likes of Drake, David Guetta, and Calvin Harris all dominate heavy-rotation radio formats with many of the same homogenization techniques and nods to electronica predicted on HAA, plus the latter two in particular have benfitted from the EDM festival circuit that Daft Punk brought to life after HAA). Now, with RAM, they’ve flipped the script by using expensive, painstaking production (often requiring theatrical effects) to inject humanity (artificially, it could be argued) into an overblown record whose clearest genre roots are in the infamously anti-human/anti-authenticity disco genre.
Yes, disco. Anyone even mildly interested in RAM has likely already heard “Get Lucky” played to death, likely on Spotify, where it broke all sorts of records. Jaron Lanier has posted some thoughts on the anonymization made possible by Spotify and similar services: that they have made it less easy to discern the source or author of certain material, due to the decontextualization made possible by “unlimited” music that taps into a bottomless pit of material. And, with “Get Lucky,” I got that feeling, since it really has almost nothing to identify it as a “Daft Punk” track, other than some robot voices near the end. Otherwise, it’s all Nile Rodgers disco guitar-plucking and Pharrell Williams’ libidinous come-ons. It’s catchy, but it’s just another serviceable track to throw into your Spotify stream. The Verge wondered if Daft Punk could bring back the album with RAM, and I think the answer is “probably not,” not for lack of trying, but because it has an internal identity crisis.
“Get Lucky” is the exception rather than the rule on an album marked mostly by long, mawkish nods to synthpop and disco. The endless “Giorgio by Moroder” is a monologue by the titular producer when ends in some gratuitous guitar noise, while “Game of Love” and “Within” have a studious sadness reminiscent of The Buggles, except more grating and boring. Pharrell’s other contribution, “Lose Yourself to Dance” and the return of Discovery star Todd Edwards on “Fragments of Time” contain the most obvious nods to the band’s past, particularly Discovery, which thanks to “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and “One More Time,” remains perhaps their most culturally prominent album. If the theme of HAA was a self-contained band making improvisational music, then RAM is the opposite, filled with guest stars who seem to be on different pages and who, at the same time and paradoxically, seem to lose some of their distinctiveness as they all sink back toward a common blandness and homogeneity. The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas appears on “Instant Crush,” which with its murky vocal filters and well-controlled Cars rhythm, is, well, basically a Strokes song. The orchestral “Touch” features Paul Williams but has a portentousness that doesn’t quite fit the album’s overall air-headed nature. It still grates, but in a different way from the rest of the tracks here.
The album seems best when it features only the core band. “Motherboard” is lushly reminiscent of P-Funk, and closer “Contact” deftly uses a sample of astronaut Eugene Cernan’s voice. Opener “Give Life Back to Music” is spritely and energetic, fusing the roboticness of HAA with the pop of Discovery; its title also seems to sum up the album’s credo.
But the band really already “gave life back to music” in their previous three albums, which (sequentially, from Homework to Discovery to HAA) excavated 1990s house, 1970s/1980s synthpop, and loose-limbed rock. They challenged (if only naively) the notion that there was a coherent “past,” “present,” and “future” in music by pitting Black Sabbath riffs against ProTools or Barry Manilow samples against sequencers. It all rose above mashup or hybrid, too. The band’s NYT interview reveals a noble goal for RAM: to achieve a brand of craftsmanship that disappeared from the mainstream after the advent of digital music with the CD, in turn perhaps showing that the alleged never-ending wave of technological “progress” has done little to enhance the emotional value of music.
Sadly, I’m not sure that they succeed in this project, not only due to the album’s scatterbrained musical palette and array of guests, but due to weaker tracks like “Doin’ It Right,” featuring the characteristically annoying/acquired-taste shout-chant vocals of Panda Bear, or palette-cleansers like “Within” and “Beyond” which seem to overstay their welcomes. There are, to be sure, tons of nice details in this music, from the scratchiness of its guitars, to the wind instruments on “Motherboard,” or the glittering opening of “Give Life Back to Music,” which for me recalls the very 1970s pomp (Eagles, Fleetwood Mac) that the band have cited as inspiration. But the album is caught in an odd no-man’s land, having neither the coherence and flow (and economy – something that 74-minute RAM lacks) of a would-be pre-CD model like Rumours or Hotel California, nor the feeling of novelty (however superficial – it is the in-the-moment sensation of newness that matters here, I think) that electronica has been able to provide, via technically sophisticated methods, for nearly 20 years now.
So RAM is a defiantly anti-progressive work that tries to eschews the conventions of contemporary dance and electronica, but for the first time in Daft Punk’s career, it shows them breaking their usual agnosticism toward the flow of time (as described above): they too visibly give up the present to try and dredge up traces of disco, 70s AOR, and even of the careers of artists (Casabalancas, Pharrell) whose careers arguably peaked over a decade ago. RAM is nice retroist record, but it could have been more.
Ultimately, I think we have come to expect too much of this band and its abilities. We want their music to be some grand commentary on humans and robots, on emotion and automation, but I hope that I’ve succeeded here in pointing out that the most notable aspect of Daft Punk is not their music, but their cultural status and the ways in which musicians, writers, and listeners try to inject their own confusions about life from the 1990s forward.
“Technology” is a problematic term. Like “problematic,” it has a specific Greek etymology that, when scrutinized (a pastime of mine), reveals it to be distressingly vague in its meaning. Anything that is artful or crafted (techné) can be “technological.” So why limit this blog to the “traditional” (I really should cut back on the scare-marks in this blog) space of gadgets and apps, when there’s a whole world out there waiting to come under the “technological” (oops) lens of scrutiny? And what better to analyze than The Knife’s long-awaited triple/double album, Shaking the Habitual? Since it comes in a handy 3xLP/2xCD package (in Europe, if you’re lucky), it even bridges the divide between the digital and analog worlds (even such “worlds” even exist) while unfurling over an hour and a half of new original content.
But it’s more fascinating as an artifact from a cutting-edge (heh) band who have tapped one of the hoariest formats of music’s yesteryear (the gatefold double album) to contend with and combat, if even unintentionally (as if intent matters, but whatever), the current business models of music, which gives less reward for more work. In doing so, they use their enormous, obvious effort (a double album! seven years in the making!) to highlight, both implicitly and explicitly, Europe’s own ongoing issues with labor and shared currency.
The Knife are (this British noun/verb agreement structure seems appropriate here) an enormously accomplished band, and, really, their success could hardly have been more surprising. Aesthetically, the Swedish twins traffic in a brand of frenzied yet strangely introverted techno. At its heart is Karin Dreijer Andersson’s protean voice and the way it floats unsettlingly over the duo’s electronic stew, which seems to occupy the precise boundary at which fairytale-grade Scandinavian forest meets (obscure) nightclub: earnestly rustic, yet hipster, too.
As such, The Knife are a curious case-study for the notion of “technological progress,” since they simultaneously seem to excavate some indelibly vague set of older folk musics and notions of the album as a form (not to mention the work of Yoko Ono, whose work may now reasonably elicit a response of “She’s still alive?”) while also attracting the keen attention of the hyper-hip current music press and clubgoers alike. Other than the impending release of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories next month, there probably won’t be a bigger event in “indie” music (i.e., covered by websites with fancy CSS) this year. And speaking of Daft Punk, Shaking the Habitual is very much The Knife’s answer to that band’s dense, intellectual Human After All.
But The Knife aren’t just aestheticians; they’re political activists, which raises the stakes that accompany each of their projects. Their Venetian masks, insistences of privacy, and reluctance to perform live are delightfully anachronistic, if one’s idea of “–chronism” is the always-on/you have no privacy bullshit mantras of Eric Schmidt, Jeff Jarvis, and the general cult of Google (I love Google’s products – this is an Android blog, after all – but I don’t romanticize it as an organization). They’ve assaulted notions of gender via their approach to vocals, and they reprise their assault here in “Full of Fire,” which contains the Salt-N-Pepa referencing lyric “let’s talk about gender, baby / let’s talk about you and me.” And now, they’ve made a project bigger and more politically overwhelming than anything else in their repertoire, an album which uses both form and content to wedge itself uncomfortably against the political, musical, and social status quo.
Speaking of “bigger,” this is a huge album. Almost 100 minutes of new material. And to make it even harder to down than a rum-and-(Diet) Coke that was mixed, unfinished, and then rerefrigerated, it’s almost stridently idealistic in its politics. Translated, this means that it makes no compromises in terms of run times (tracks go upward of 10 minutes in length) and often broaches topics like the Euro’s slow-motion demise, as on “Stay Out There,” or the self-explanatory “Fracking Fluid Injection.” And is that PSY on the cover (probably not, but it would be topically appropriate)?
In their 1997 song “Bigger Than England,” Long Fin Killie bemoaned “waiting here for days, and still no hint of a thrill,” in the context of gently satirizing British rock music’s history of constantly changing genre labels (“let the post-punk dash left you behind…the morning dogs who protest retro rock n’ roll”). Shaking the Habitual, as its title suggests, takes a similar tack, that of a bored/skeptical onlooker who wants real change rather than the superficial changes and labels that surround them. It does this against the backdrop of major wealth redistribution thanks to the Euro and the proliferation of electronica into the awareness of average indie and pop listeners. “Bigger Than England”? Shaking the Habitual may as well be “Bigger Than Europe.”
Since many listeners now hear electronica simply by turning on any heavy rotation station, The Knife have reconfigured even their own already-abrasive musical language to be more far-out (and I mean that not simply generically, but with specific weight to the late 1960s music scene – more on that later). The stair-step synths from their 2004 masterpiece Deep Cuts and the murky atmospherics of Silent Shout anticipated the mainstreaming of indietronica and dubstep, respectively, so what’s next? Shaking the Habitual is a super-cohesive work: its songs share an homogenous sound that is shot-thru with cheap-sounding drum machines and synths. “Networking” recalls a more cynical Drexciya, while the Egyptian pipes of “Raging Lung” play like an elongated reprise of “Keep the Streets Empty for Me” from Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray solo album, while also mysteriously quoting Fugazi (“what a difference a little difference would make”). Nothing sounds like “the future” (and what does something that doesn’t exist yet sound like, anyway?), but I think that’s the point: the only way for The Knife to make a cutting point here is to dig into “the past,” for music presumed dead but which is actually very much still with us.
This approach is most liberally pursued on “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized,” a 19-minute tone poem that stays true to its title by never really firing into action but instead lingering in the background, often inaudible. As the cynical exclamation on a difficult statement, it rivals The Mothers of Invention’s “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” a similarly mysterious stretch of near-silence that capped their 1968 album We’re Only in it for the Money. The latter has often received epithets like “Most Lousy Song on a Great Album,” which I’m sure will be recycled in approaching “Old Dreams…” and how it fits into the otherwise fairly digestible Shaking the Habitual. Yes, for all of its difficulty, this album is a smooth listen, driven by Dreijer Andersson’s cheeky lyrics and androgynous vocals, not to mention more than a few vocal hooks, such as on “Raging Lung” and the delightfully droning “Cherry on the Top.”
The album’s surprising appeal – I’ve since spun it three more times – made me recall a recent missive from the musician Terre Thaemlitz. In the PDF liner notes to his unprecedented Soulnessless album (which I hope he won’t begrudge me quoting here) has written eloquently of how most high-profile projects inevitably surrender to prevalent norms about music:
“Our obsession for career compliancy with the mechanisms of the marketplace, even when producing “culturally critical” projects, betrays an underlying aspiration to the status quo. It also exposes a crippling religious faith in our labor only gaining true audibility through dominant notions of audience and visibility. The marketplace demands that we develop products aspiring to universality and mass appeal, with no concern for the detrimental aspects of homogenization. And even in our most sincere attempts at non-compliance, we magically seem to comply.”
The aforementioned homogenous sound of the album seems to indicate the same phenomenon occurring on Shaking the Habitual. But it complies in an odd way, by referencing the older double-album format (what is a “double album,” anyway, in an era in which so much music has no physical form?) and its various distinctive traits like very long tracks and short, palate-cleansing interludes, seen here in the Margaret Atwood-referencing “Oryx” and “Crake” songs, both of which clock in at under a minute. This plays more like The White Album, or one of The Mothers Of Invention’s more far-strung 1960s works (the double-disc Uncle Meat, for example) than any more recent double-album. In other words, The Knife are well-versed in the particular vocabulary of the album, and they have delivered a Big Statement of sorts by electing to release such a long-form work in an era defined by single-song downloads and streaming.
Or have they? Thaemlitz, in that same essay, also remarks:
“The album, as a compositional formation derived from those media durations, is dead in the wake of infinite single-track downloads. While there is a desire to celebrate audio recording’s liberation from the arbitrary time restrictions of archaic media formats, technological and corporately devised limitations of the MP3 format make any such celebration premature. Throughout the CD era, record labels have come to demand audio producers make projects that fill the longer digital media capacities. So much so that consumers now feel disappointment and even trickery when purchasing shorter albums. Yet all the while labels are paying lower advances and royalties. ”
Paradoxically, the era of seemingly short attention spans and discrete individual tracks has also given rise to huge, never-ending albums, keeping the old format in rather rude health. The long, overstuffed Shaking the Habitual, as such, is an amazingly poignant work for 2013, and this poignancy makes its venom all the more potent. It appears to lash out against environmental abuse and the “short century” caused by the Euro crisis. It’s a work that has the residue of recent economic crises all over it, as evinced by the “End Extreme Wealth” mantra on the vinyl edition’s cover.
But it makes an even more subtle point simply by way it marries seemingly archaic form with a consistent knack for pop. Even Pitchfork, in reviewing the pair’s contributions to the Tomorrow, in a Year opera, said that The Knife have always been a pop band at heart. And it’s this pop sensibility that reveals the band seemingly grappling with how to make a difficult Big Statement (on politics, on art) while subconsciously “complying” (to use Thaemlitz’s terminology) with pop norms in a way that only they can. In 2004, on “Listen Now,” they declared: “We seek and we will find/Reason to stay alive/The price has never been this low.” In 2013, amidst shrinking musical royalties and increasing inequality in Europe and the West, they have made good on that promise, staying alive thru the sheer weight and power of Shaking the Habitual.
-The ScreenGrab Team