Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Chemical Brothers: Further (2010)


(Virgin)

It's not been very long since I finally gave up on the Chemical Brothers, their last great album for me being 1999's Surrender, which was swiftly followed by the mediocre Come with Us and a host of terrible singles. (Disclosure: I have not heard the two albums between Come with Us and this one in their entirety.) But almost immediately after I wrote them off, they released Further and started gathering up a lot of return-to-form buzz. These guys were huge to me at their peak, and I'd be remiss if I didn't check in on them now.

Further is a step in the right direction, but that's about it. Standing apart from their house and club-oriented work of the 2000s, mysterious white-label twelve-inches and all, it dismisses all guest vocals and harkens back to the faint art-rock underpinnings of Dig Your Own Hole and their very earliest work (remember, their first 12" sampled This Mortal Coil) before the name change, to say nothing of their many unlikely flirtations with psychedelia. In essence, this is a trippy record, and not in the sense of the orgy of seizuredance under flashing lights so much as the classical hippie sense: it feels like the electronic equivalent of a meandering Dead record, gripping and hypnotic but not terribly distinctive out of context.

To be clear, it is thrilling to hear a twenty year-old act try new things; the Chems have done more than their share for pop music at this point and don't really have to innovate, but this honestly doesn't resemble much of their earlier work. There's a new subtlety, putting aside the juvenile gimmicry of "Horse Power" and the shimmeringly druggy "Swoon." It feels stripped down, a renewal from a changed approach, but it also has the mark of veteran expertise -- a certain underpinning of professional restraint. it seems unlikely that Ed and Tom can ever let themselves go full-force into some creative geyser as on Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole. The delicacy of age and the trappings of a history seem inevitably positioned to keep them reined in. To hear them hard at work on these new noises is pleasurable indeed; but powerful or lasting, I cannot say.

Putting this beside the first three Chemical Brothers albums is interesting, and provides a lot of perspective; all are clearly designed as albums and not merely DJ tools, but the focus and momentum are wiry and haggard on Further. After paying little attention to such virtues throughout the last decade, the attempt to re-learn the form is only partway successful. Good ideas abound but are seldom so well-integrated: the almost painfully intense buildup of opener "Snow" into the phantasmagoric single "Escape Velocity" makes for a beautifully executed thrill, but no true climax ever seems to arrive. Much of the remainder of the album consists of the kind of comedown meditations that would only mark pacing lulls in their early work. These are delightful on their own -- the mysterious, bubbling "Wonders of the Deep" is one of their most evocative performances to date -- but serve only in combination to add to the weird feeling that something is absent from Further.

And I can't place precisely what it is. Is it the way that Hole and Surrender went above and beyond dance music in a way Big Beat peers seldom did by interpolating considerable emotional depth in material like "Elektrobank," "Where I Begin," and "The Sunshine Underground"? Is it the level of variance in the '90s albums that seems impossible now? Or is it just that those records -- especially Exit Planet Dust -- had a spark, something that made them purer and fresher and more fun? For whatever reason, I keep feeling like Further is pretty serious business. And it's nice when former heroes are still that obsessed with their craft, but I just don't know if I'm ever gonna find myself completely on their wavelength again.

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