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Unfunny and slightly irritating
on 28 April 2009
With all of its key representatives releasing their third LPs, the NME-sanctioned "art wave" genre has had something of a resurrection in the last couple of months. Bloc Party surprised everyone with their challenging departure from the mainstream, Intimacy. Franz Ferdinand resurfaced after a fairly long hiatus and surprised no-one with their limp third album, Tonight. And now Art Brut are back with their third record, Art Brut vs Satan.
Unlike Bloc Party, Art Brut are in the slightly less enviable position of being relative outsiders, looking to court the mainstream as a means of regular job avoidance. By sticking to their guns, Art Brut - like Franz Ferdinand - will be hoping that art wave's star is not in a state of waning. It must be said that any movement is only as good as its component parts and as far as Art Brut vs Satan goes, the news for art wave (according to this critic) isn't good.
The main problem with art wave is that its irony has a tendency of becoming easily inverted, with bands ultimately sounding like a Chris Morris piss-take of themselves. Worse still, because the irony trick is played here with such incessant predictability, the whole album merges into one slightly unfunny joke. The problem being, you're guaranteed to laugh more at the reductionist wit of anti-irony satirists like Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker than the straight-laced irony of Art Brut. Post-modernism and nihilism are the anti-Christs of many forms of humour. For art wave, irony has met its maker in satirism: whereas art wave's self-referential irony once felt like a refreshing tonic to the derivative movements of Brit-pop and new wave punk, the movement now feels more like an unintended parody of itself.
Aside from its sub-contextual problems, Art Brut vs Satan is not helped by another, more obvious, factor. As Franz Ferdinand have found with their latest album, and to a certain extent with the follow-up to their landmark debut, once the well has dried up you either evolve or suffer the consequences. Bloc Party spotted the musical death knells of predictability and stagnation early and swerved to avoid them. With their third release, Art Brut are still riding the buzz of their debut. Aside from the final track's noble, seven-minute attempt at self-indulgence, the formula remains the same: three-minute, punky student anthems laden with immediate hooks, catchy riffs and conversational storytelling - all of which is doused in a quintessentially British irony.
Album opener Alcoholics Unanimous is as obvious as its title's (huh, like so ironic) wordplay. With his overly-enunciated southern accent, lead singer Eddie Argos informs us: "I've been up all night / I've been making mistakes / I'm hiding it well / but I don't feel great". Argos then goes on to describe how he feels compelled to send his friends a "group text" as a means of apology for his drunken misdemeanours. Hopefully, the group text will extend to all those with the misfortune to hear this track - and all of its sub-Hollyoaks clichés. Thankfully, crunching Graham Coxon-light fretwork - a regular feature of the album - helps to fill in the song's lyrical gaping holes.
As the album progresses, the irritating student humour carries on unabated. With DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake, Argos describes how he "eats cereal for every meal" (weirdo!), but has never had to share a teabag with another four people (that's just sick! Why would you do that!?). However, he does admit to a fondness for the title's subject matter "even at the age of 28!" The crazy fool. I bet he, like, still lives with his parents and doesn't have any means of regular income! That's OK, because I'd rather have him explain the connection between his completely uninteresting juvenility and a (truly unfortunate) girl working in a local comic shop that Argos fancies. No, I really would.
Throughout the album's duration, the whole gamut of Adrian Mole-inspired day-to-day happenings are covered in a similarly narrative, faux-ironic fashion. A number of inspiring topics are covered such as: Argos' predilection for public transport (The Passenger); shyness (Am I Normal?); amateur bands (Slap Dash For No Cash); the discovery of an old band (The Replacements); and the crapness of summer jobs (Summer Job). Although the subject matter is not exactly life-changing, the band's musical output is profuse with adrenaline-inducing guitar work, raucous drumming and addictive baselines - think along the lines of a Razorlight-Maccabees cross germination. There can be no doubt this album's tight production is its life raft: Frank Black's input has clearly been of great benefit.
Demon's Out, not before time, comes to the album's rescue and sees the band facing up to their own fate. As an individual track, it is easily the album's most interesting juncture. With a sense of exasperation, Argos expresses his fears regarding his band's future: "the record-buying public we hate them / this is our group vs Satan / a brush with Satan can be fatal / we're doing this for you / so you should be grateful!" The extent of the band's frustration becomes clear when Argos asks: "how am I supposed to sleep at night / when no-one likes the records we write?" Tracks like this one that harbour a greater degree of confession and intrigue and a more restrained use of irony may provide the singer with a resolution to his troubles.
Perhaps this illuminating illustration of the band's own sense of fallibility will usher in a new and improved Art Brut. Certainly, the lengthy final track suggests the band, at least musically, are capable of creating interesting landscapes. Let's hope this band's future is not hamstrung by its now tiresome ironic predisposition.