This can’t keep happening.
Since his Nation of Ulysses collapsed in 1992, Ian Svenonius has cut a path of shameless self-fashioning, sloughing the shackles of biography as each new project requires, trampling the well-trampled boundary between life and art to enact each notionally unique communiqué on the state of modern sincerity, irony, and their torridly dialectical communion. NoU’s pan-seditious rhetoric reached full bloom: absurdist screeds against aspirin, sleep, and “parent culture”; vigorous endorsements of “the righteous and the well-dressed” as vessels of Ulyssean Jihad; letter-perfect dossiers of the cell’s position papers, bombing record, and subsequent fingerprinting. ’Twas a complete execution — perhaps philosophically impoverished in a larger sense, but relentless in pronouncing a new order and arrogating the duty of setting it straight. Svenonius — Spiv, El Gato, The Min of In — moaned and contorted, spitting the empowering truth. And they were a band, too. Key figures in hardcore’s Berlin Wall-era splintering and dilation, looser counterpoints to Drive Like Jehu, wild-eyed marshals of Fugazi’s id, Ulysses carved up punk’s received pronunciation and unleashed it over polyrhythms and oodles of dissonance.
Left to his own devices, though, and infused with a double shot of soul, post-Ulysses Svenonius has led cringe clinics across this vast land. Cupid Car Club was great, but The Make-Up’s watery mod gimmick has laid a regrettable template for things to come, from Weird War (watery, mod, gimmicky) through the David Candy detour (no comment whatsoever) and onward to the present day. With Chain and The Gang, Svenonius riffs on oppression, consciousness, and materialism, and the result, true to form, is all conceptual sass, a record assembled without any appreciable regard for its sound.
The conceit here pivots on the mass-mind apparition of ‘liberty’ and its (un)intended consequences: conquest, triumphalism, bad taste, and so on. Thus, cries Spiv, resist. In a fatuous bout of self-abjection, he and the gang — a sprawling cohort that includes Calvin Johnson, Karl Blau, and members of Dub Narcotic Sound System, Old Time Relijun, and Finally Punk — ape the work songs that once actually got the disenfranchised through the day. Sparsely arranged and frozen in unending mimicry of gospel or blaxploitation soundtracks or something, this probing commentary continues for 37 minutes. Carceral signifiers aside, the Chain project falls squarely within Svenonius’s oeuvre of mediocrity, indistinct. As he discloses early on, “I need to figure ‘particular’ out.”
Some songs are catchy, broadly considered: “Room 19” could almost pass for Sam Cooke, and “Unpronounceable Name” is a silly, slinky romp with saxophone. “Deathbed Confession,” the only song with a discernible chord progression, narrates a chat with a dying man who declares, “I killed MLK for the CIA/ And Malcolm X for Federal Express.” But the vast majority don’t move: on a formal level, Svenonius makes no tactical gains, indeed accepting stasis as an organizing principle of composition. The typical Chain song achieves a groove, a bass line, an atavistic attachment to genre, and that’s the extent of it: he solidly refuses to operate within those bounds or even attempt their transcendence. The ramshackle percussion, the buzzes, clatters, and claps, create something of an aura, but no: pastiche demands something more. Indeed, it’s this constant displacement, this jellylike appropriation of bygone tropes, that most condemns the record. Spiv is the leader, but even in that capacity he abdicates responsibility; he exists only to channel the categories to which Chain and The Gang ostensibly pertain.
Of course, it should be simple enough to ignore his prattling diatribes, but he’s built in one feature that forecloses that option (as far as he’s concerned, anyway, which is quite clearly what matters around these parts). Chain and The Gang is predicated on a nagging call-and-response format, which can produce several effects. In the best case, the dialogical structure can call attention to the act of transmission, the colorful give-and-take of indoctrination and influence, and give it the lie, recouping in a softer idiom the shortcomings of Svenonius’s recalcitrant but thoroughly non-dialectical mind. On the other hand, it’s just as easy for the chorus’ limp, effaced responses to reinforce their leader’s hold; surely power relations course through the sermons of a charismatic church, and surely Svenonius can’t refuse the charity of his disciples. Most to the point, though, is the slippery way in which this format legitimizes the unbearable dance of imitation, pushing Chain to the furthest margins of meaningful, not to say political, expression: “People talk about reparations/ Yeah, they do/ People talk about reparations/ Yeah, well, me too.” A murmur of obtuse nods and simpering giggles bubble in the background, sanctioning it all. “Interview with the Chain Gang” is especially heinous: an interlocutor peppers Spiv’s remarks with “No one’s ever said that before/ No one’s put it like that before.”
The record occasions a pregnant but still bothersome reflection on the aged dyad of content and form. Is imitation enough? Is it still soul music if the message is one of nihilism and surrender? And yes, yes, yes, that’s the joke. But that joke isn’t funny anymore.
1. Chain Gang Theme (I See Progress)
2. Cemetery Map
3. Trash Talk
5. What Is a Dollar?
6. Interview with the Chain Gang
7. Deathbed Confession
8. Room 19
9. (Lookin’ for a) Cave Girl
10. Unpronounceable Name