Time was when you could bank on a new Chemical Brothers album every few years, like a gift transported from some muddy field or mega rave somewhere in the UK right to your cranium. They have spent the last two and half decades making music that often assaulted the senses, and live they’re an act that not only cracks your eardrums, but imprints images in your head that you may not always want to remember: their visuals are memorable, and often overwhelming. Just look at the video above (and add it to Do It Again (Live) for starters) and you get the picture. However, much as I love their music and have never had a Chems album that I’ve not liked, after 2010’s Born In The Echoes (itself a comparatively long five years after 2010’s Further) I wasn’t sure we’d even get another record from them.
Ed left them as a live outfit in 2015, and though visual collaborator Adam Smith admirably filled in – they were still incredible at Glastonbury in 2015, where I buzzed to them in their traditional Sunday night Other Stage slot – it felt like it may be the end of a road for a band that pretty much taught me how to dance in a field. In fact as a band, they’ve pretty much soundtracked – like anyone else of *cough* a certain age – my entire raving lifespan. Exit Planet Dust came out a whopping 24 (yes, TWENTY FOUR) years ago, but it blew my socks off then and still sounds absolutely crisp and fresh as it did then. Named after their previous Dust Brothers moniker (they reputedly nicked it from Beastie Boys producers, never thinking they’d ever be successful enough for it to matter) the album introduced us to many Chemical Brothers staples: acid 303s, growling leads, huge drum fills, sampled vocals, guitar licks and whooshing, discombobulating sounds and melodies. It wasn’t all eye-popping peak-time bangers though, because they have also made a name making more blissed-out tracks (see One Too Many Mornings from that very album) and seeking out collaborations with artists that fitted their unique template.
I say unique ironically, as one criticism through their hugely successful career has been an accusation – lazy, in my opinion – that they keep making the same record or that they’re unoriginal. I think that would be on firmer ground if a) anyone else consistently sounded like them and b) there wasn’t the great variation within their sound across all their albums. Some of the songs I most love from the last 30 years of electronic music (and that I still own on vinyl) are from the Chems: It Began In Afrika, Come With Us, The Golden Path, Hey Boy Hey Girl, Chemical Beats Out Of Control and The Private Psychedelic Reel (god, I’m getting nostalgic here) and of course their enduring work with Q-Tip, Galvanize and Go (two of my favourite tracks). They sounded amazing, their videos were groundbreaking (I still love watching Hey Boy, and thinking ‘oh, I used to dance there’) and live they were almost unrivalled in the electronic music scene. I’ve seen them live half a dozen times, and they’ve never disappointed. Though I still wish I’d been to Red Rocks.
So the news that Ed was back and a new album was coming left me with mixed feelings. Was it going to be up to their standard? And if not, should you bow out gracefully? We’re not getting any younger, and it’s a long time since we were freewheeling hedonists in the 90s and 00s. Of course, i shouldn’t have worried. Even if there is a little of the law of diminishing returns in play, a few listens to No Geography and it feels like slipping on an old pair of jeans. And I still get that Proustian rush back to some memorable live experiences as soon as those familiar sounds fill the ears. The fact they’ve made it with just the kit from their early albums feels a nice pushback against the over-compressed, quantized, perfectly melodic electronic music we’ve been bred into these days.
I hope it gets them some new fans too. I know they’re touring, and I know I’ll want to go. And part of me feels a bit sad that younger crew today won’t get to hear Hey Boy Hey Girl for the first time back when, and this ‘what the FUCK it this’? Whatever you may think of them, few have lasted as long as they have, and there’s a reason for that.
But more importantly, what do you think?
Sometimes an album of the month is a leap in the dark (some work, some don’t, like N.E.R.D., yikes) and sometimes you have one that you desperately want to do but the timing is wrong, and when it comes to your shot, someone’s bloody bought it. NOT THIS TIME. So I’m rather chuffed to be able to still present Tracey Thorn’s new solo album: Record.
There’s a lot to say here, and a lot of history for me, so I’ll try and be brief, but probably fail. While never being a properly committed EBTG fan (more fool me), Tracey Thorn’s solo work has found a way into my heart ever since her first recent album, Into The Woods, back in 2007 (technically her second, but A Distant Shore was released in 1982!). She’d obviously found me via work where her vocals (Massive Attack) or her songwriting (Missing) made it onto the dancefloor, but seeing a solo album was still a bit of surprise, especially away from her work with husband Ben Watt.
But it wasn’t just good: Out Of The Woods was outstanding. Pop hooks and electronic tinges that became less of a surprise when you realise that it was produced by Ewan Pearson, but this wasn’t another set of dance tracks with Thorn’s ethereal vocals ghosting over them, but a series of wonderful, sparky songs that drew on Thorn’s own life, loves and experiences, and that leapt out from the page. A career renaissance, of sorts perhaps, or a new chapter that I loved from the start. To state this by example, Grand Canyon is still one of my favourite electronic pop records of the last two decades. And there were some amazing remixes too, of course.
Come 2010 and its follow-up Love And Its Opposite, was, while less of the surprise of its forebear, is still a earnestly beautiful album. Less sparky, more mournful, tracking love and loss in middle age with elan and panache. Sorrow never too deep, joy never false, confirming Thorn as a brilliant songwriter and musician all over again. Of course, Pearson made sure it sounded as fantastic as Out Of The Woods. There was even a quirky but utterly lovely Christmas album – Tinsel and Lights – in 2012 that captured the reality (good and bad, laid bare) of what the festive period means in this modern age, and is the only recent Christmas effort that I ever play. Joy still makes me shed a tear on a regular basis.
Fast forward to 2018, and a lot, it’s fair to say, has changed since 1982, even 2007. Because while Thorn’s still writing music, there’s much more to her than simply a musical renaissance woman and borderline national treasure. A column for the New Statesman, feminist activist, author and campaigner: even following her introspective Twitter feed doesn’t really cover everything, but it’s through this wider persona that I developed a bona fide intellectual crush on her. Her brilliant memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, dovetailed wonderfully with Watt’s own poignant books on his own near-death and illustrious parents, and marked her out as much more than just a pop memoirist, but a woman with something to say. And in the era of #MeToo, it’s arguable to say that Record has arrived at an almost perfect confluence of so many parts of the last few decades of her life. The fact that I’m a 43-year old that grew up not log after Thorn’s generation makes all of the subjects and reference points seem all the more close to home, but really, it’s a statement, almost a manifesto for living in the modern world.
Put simply, I think it’s one of the best pop records of the last decade. And it’s much more than simply an album. Thorn’s openly confronted the misogyny of being lazily labelled a ‘quirky’ (and that is the the lightest in a grim litany of terminology she faces on a weekly basis) woman, and given many great interviews that explains the context of making it. Described as ‘feminist bangers’, it’s the best way to summarise the album’s spirit. From Queen’s opening, bleepy, breezy laments, through first single Sister‘s feminist call (“And I fight like a girl”) to arms, it’s an utterly modern palette of beautiful pop music, seen through the eyes of a woman who’s seen many of life’s highs and lows (the steely and world-weary “What year is it? The same old shit”) but come out determinedly swinging. I’m only a new parent now, but listening to Go is a punch in the heart delivered in a velvet glove. And while the songs – sprinkled with Pearson’s disco stardust again – are musically polished and melodically gorgeous, its the lyrics that are arguably the strong point here. Its also is no surprise there’s been gigantic remixes already that are a must for house fans, but they’re an added bonus to the whole experience.
Let none of that take away from the fact that there’s few albums around this decade that have combined great songwriting, fantastic tunesmithery and political and social relevance like this one. I can only hope you can get what I have out of it.