Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Ghostface and Raekwon. Eugene Robinson and Philippe Petit. There are some partnerships that bring out the best in both parties, an inexplicable alchemy that yields an end product so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Robinson and Petit’s relationship began in 2007 when Robinson guested on Our Moon Is Full, the debut album of Petit’s Strings of Consciousness. Even amid the bounty of that record’s post-rock goodness, “Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness” was the obvious highlight. In Robinson, the collective had finally met its match. Over the song’s nine-minute runtime, he and the band locked horns, with each gaining and losing the upper hand moment by moment. Robinson’s confused, gibbering tale of botched revenge seemed ready to fly to pieces at any moment, while the song’s noir-ish opening strains slowly morphed into a nightmare display of hissing, insect-like electronic doom.
This was obviously the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The following years would find Petit and Robinson coming together again, first for a track on Petit’s collaborative album [reciprocess : +/vs.] and later for a duet with Lydia Lunch on SOC’s superb From Beyond Love. But in between those two one-offs, Robinson and Petit recorded The Crying of Lot 69, the first entry into their planned album trilogy. It was one hell of a way to kick things off, a surreal hardboiled story in six chapters. Robinson’s gift for visceral, psychologically gripping narration found an ideal companion in Petit’s alien soundscapes — the bizarre, abstract compositions often running tangentially to the narrative in the way that Jonny Greenwoods’ scores carve out their own peculiar resonances to the accompanying footage in the films of P.T. Anderson.
The Last of the Dead Hot Lovers advances into far queasier territory. Abandoning the security of a linear plot, Last plays out like a fever dream bereft even of the grim comfort that could be found in Crying’s cold-blooded narrator. We get snatches of phrases, fragments of conversations suspended in the miasmic fluid of Petit’s compositions. This time around, Robinson shares vocal duties with Kasia Meow, singer for Polish punk outfit Terrible Disease. She proves to be a more than adequate match for his volatile persona, an icy, sneering presence, nonetheless capable of explosive outbursts.
The artists cite Edward Albee’s incendiary Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as an influence on the record. The play’s depiction of love twisted and mangled into the shape of a weapon, into a black hole bent on destroying whatever debris is sucked into its deadly vortex, is a fitting analogue to the harrowing proceedings. Meow digs into her role with particular relish, delivering every acid barb with withering contempt. “Even his hands are stupid, betraying the soft, the slow, and the fat ease of a life undeserved of living. And watching him chew is absolute terror.” she confides in us, and later adds, “He is a fly. I take off his wings slowly but keep him alive… Make sure that he needs me, even if I don’t care about it.” Robinson’s part in the sordid melodrama is more ambiguous; he seems at one moment to be the cuckold and at another the illicit lover. And when he laments, in the album’s second chapter, ”We should have killed him much quicker than we did,” it’s not clear who is dead, or how, or even necessarily why.
It’s not difficult to connect the dots between this album and “Hurt is Where the Home Is” from the most recent SOC album. Meow’s character seems to be cut from the same cloth as Lydia Lunch’s: a creature of lust and malice, capable of goading her prey into a vicious frenzy, but only able to control him up to a certain point. Like that earlier track, the speakers trade pleas, accusations, and imperatives, but rarely seem to be communicating with each other. And like that other work, Last finds its resolution in some undefined act of violence.
Of course, much of the album’s power is due to Petit’s free-form soundtrack. Crying’s relatively straightforward plot was accompanied by a soundscape that unfolded in a linear fashion: a backdrop that shapeshifted gradually around certain harmonic figures to create a sense of melody and development. Each of the six chapters, while blending seamlessly together, still maintained a unique, individual character. Last feels wholly unmoored from such narrative devices. Petit runs his Cymbalum, Electric Psalterion, synth, and custom-built Triple Caterpillar Drum Guitars through his laptop to create a roiling sea of Hitchcockian string swirls, static pops and hisses, processed vocal samples, and digital shredding with no rational form. The end result is an album that feels like an even more organic fusion of voice and music than the first installment.
The ice-hearted, man-eating bitch queen archetype that reemerges in this album gave me a moment of pause, since it seems to represent a recurring pattern in the artists’ work together. Still, I’ll take a strong femme fatale over a goody girl victim any day. And when a work is this raw and this ferocious, it’s difficult not to become invested (at least from my perspective of male privilege). Last of the Dead Hot Lovers is the most challenging work Robinson and Petit have produced to date, and all the more unsettling for that.