Preoccupations Preoccupations

[Jagjaguwar; 2016]

Styles: post-punk
Others: Viet Cong, Facebook, Gang of Four, Joy Division

So, the new Viet Cong album then. I’m not going to pretend I understood how offensive it could have been for Vietnamese communities to learn that four white Canadians were happily profiting from the “bad ass” resonance of a name that represented an entire history of trauma for them. Still, I am going to claim that the name change from Viet Cong to Preoccupations was bad for the Lovely Boys (this is the name I prefer to call the group in question), since it appeared to confirm that their image as a band was like a superficial facade with no meaning, weight, or substance behind it.

It’s bad because, with this apparent confirmation, the new Lovely Boys album can’t help but appear within a frame of interpretation that casts it as shallow. It’s bad because, having let go of a name that self-avowedly meant very little to them, the Lovely Boys can’t help but come across as a band that means very little. It’s bad because, in bowing to umbrage and displeasure, they have effectively repositioned themselves less as an artistic enterprise and more as a commercial one. They strive to keep potential and actual customers happy, rather than striving to provoke them.

This isn’t to say that the Lovely Boys were wrong to apologize for the hurt they caused and to change their name as part of their apology. Rather, it’s simply to say that the switch confirmed the original name’s emptiness and thereby highlighted the possibility that, contrary to appearances, their whole shtick was nothing more than an “edgy” posture. Given that this shtick involved evoking the kind of political paranoia and cynicism mined by no less a band than This Heat, it was therefore a bit of a letdown to learn that, in actual fact, the band weren’t trying to say anything important about today’s unstable world with their name (and perhaps also their music).

It’s because they didn’t mean anything by their much-maligned former name that its replacement wasn’t actually a defeat for artistic expression, since there was no expression whatsoever that ended up being effaced in honor of offended parties (or the thought police, depending on your perspective). However, it nonetheless leaves us at a dead-end when it comes to unpacking the Lovely Boys’ sophomore record, in that it suggests that there isn’t all that much to unpack. Yes, there’s that familiarly vague sense of unease and disquiet, those serrated guitars, and those industrial-tinged synths and beats, yet everything seems less urgent and consequential, much to the album’s detriment.

It all starts innocuously enough, but perhaps the problem is that opener “Anxiety” is a little too innocuous. A plodding 4/4 bass line kicks it off before making way for the chiming guitar of the chorus, which, despite sounding pretty, is arguably too restrained and underdeveloped to register that much of an effect. It’s as if the song’s music far-too thoroughly reflects the weariness of its own lyrics, perfectly complementing such lines as “A jaded need for some astonishment” and “Not at risk of being overconfident” with a numb lassitude that risks leaving the listener a touch numb herself.

There will be some who’ll suppose that this jadedness and under-confidence results from the whole furor of the band having to backtrack on their name. Insofar as vocalist/bassist Matt Flegel acknowledged in an April interview that the whole “Viet Cong” controversy “put a damper and put a lot of stress on us,” there might be a smidgen of truth to this. However, quite apart from Flegel’s explicit qualifier that the controversy had less an effect on their style than personal experiences and issues, there’s also the fact that the album picks up after the relative misstep of its underwhelming opener.

For its A side, it finds the Lovely Boys making the most of a new identity as weary, somewhat understated pessimists. “Monotony” has Flegel complaining that “the persistence of monotony is blowing out the Sun,” and while the song might almost risk monotony itself, it features a brooding pre-chorus that radiates heavily with atmospheric, absorbing synths. Similarly, 11-minute centerpiece “Memory” might lack the fierceness or bite of a “Death” or “March of Progress,” yet it ends up forging its own quietly hopeful identity, amassing tremolo-picked guitars from the halfway mark to finish in a hail of affirmative noise.

The album gains momentum as it enters its second half, but it still sounds like they’ve lost some of the vigor and confidence of their debut. In fact, songs like the charging “Degraded” seem to be dealing with just such a loss, with Flegel delivering such fatalistic lyrics as “I can’t improve, I can’t improve, I can’t improve” and “Degrade into a fraction of yourself.” He may very well be commenting here on the limitations and constraints society forces on people in general, yet despite this possibility, it remains all-too easy to lapse into the assumption that the members are themselves accepting limitations and constraints.

This comes out in the “Cease and desist” of “Zodiac,” the “Everyone is floating by the graveside” of “Forbidden,” and the “There’s nothing you can do/ Because we’re all dead inside” of “Stimulation.” Together, these kinds of lines are used by the Lovely Boys to invoke not just a mood of rampant passivity and powerlessness, but also the dire suspicion that, perhaps because of the monolithic, technocratic nature of 21st-century civilization, such unfortunate conditions can’t be escaped.

As a whole, this fixation qualifies the album as something of a downer in contrast to its more indignant predecessor. Even with this perceptible re-emphasis in tone and style, the specter of the “Viet Cong” controversy may come back to haunt the Lovely Boys. This is because it potentially engenders what could be called an artistic lack of trust, in the sense that, in showing how a previous “incarnation” of the band was a superficial pose that could easily be jettisoned in the face of opposition, it creates the worry that even this less brash and more subdued version is no less of a hollow veneer. Just because the Lovely Boys now sing about “anxiety” and being “degraded” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any less disingenuous. It doesn’t mean they’re not appropriating such themes in the same way they appropriated the name “Viet Cong.” More specifically, it doesn’t mean they’re not emptying said themes of the particular meaning they have for those who actually live them, in much the same way that their thoughtless use of “Viet Cong” erased years and decades of suffering.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure much or even most art appropriates the lived experience of other people and reduces said experience to a bunch of fashionable signifiers. Nonetheless, because the whole “Viet Cong” controversy has the power to implant doubts as to the Lovely Boys’ overall sincerity and substance, the album ends up lacking the power and importance it might’ve had otherwise. It may be more accomplished and accessible than its forebear, yet it mostly comes across as a tad inconsequential, running through one nice song to the next without ever really being anything more than “nice.” They certainly sound good, with the band’s occasionally ethereal post-punk displaying a greater variety than on previous outings, but it’s hard to say if they really mean anything. Maybe they do, but then maybe the band opted for playing them simply because they wanted to sound like “bad asses.”

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