There’s something about a big-beat album that doesn’t easily lend itself to critical evaluation. However, in an album with no room for sensitivity, I find a soft spot for Teddybears’ swagger. I enjoy a band — or, rather, a team of Swedish producers and longtime hardcore enthusiasts — named Teddybears, who swagger, who encourage a variety of swagged-out poses from their multitude of guests. I enjoy silly swagger.
Critically, to say so is a coming-out — and now I suppose I’m free. I don’t have to continue burying my early-Black Eyed Peas albums. And if the Peas had a thing or two to say after all, perhaps so do Teddybears. Neither’s been able to reverse teleology, despite the Peas’ more explicit claims to do so — by beginning with The End, album sequence-wise, followed by The Beginning — or Teddybears, by mounting evidence of their second childhood, as evidenced on Devil’s Music. But, let’s check in with Teddybears as they mount a valiant effort against immobility, incommunicability, and decay, though not necessarily creating anything beautiful or lasting. Instead, it’s a catalogue of pop tropes, including those previously synthesized by the electronica superstars of the late 90s and those defining the dance music of the oughts, taken to logical conclusions that I dare you to straight-face. I guarantee you’ll laugh and cringe at least once while listening to it.
Teddybears, via guest vocalist Eve, begin the album with a telling disclaimer, as she introduces herself as “not a rocket scientist.” The capable Eve, by way of cliché, claims ignorance or inability, offering a quick snatch of humility before overloading us with her “primitive” braggadocio. So, to begin discussing the Teddybears is to begin in self-conscious lightness, almost bereft of density. As you listen, turn off your intelligence, then reclaim it. Let the word Teddybear roll around your tongue, and you’ll have some idea of the spirit of the ‘Bears, if not their thump, zap, and lack of nuance. Eve continues by signing tits, slapping opponents Philly-style, and even ragging on drum machines, turning the intangible and non-attributable sounds into enemies or into friends-with-whom-to-be-combative-flirtatiously, in accordance with her own scientific method. By the end, she has earned the skeleton key to swivel her hips any which way (including mock-violently), inspiring us to follow suit. The Auto-Tuned vocals and, in the next track, chopped-up lyrics, which continue in anthemic jam after anthemic jam, come on strong. The only breaches in this plasticized artificiality are “live”-sounding drum breaks, which fill and solo with comical busyness. The synths have cornball rising action, like a trance DJ maxing a crossfader into his own shameless version of euphoria. The second charismatic and unabashedly determined guest singer, Desmond Forster, is set on getting his “mama a house.” It’s all ego-trip, all bragging right heaped upon bragging right to the point of liberatory nonsensicality. Polyphony, eat your heart out.
My own disclaimer: this isn’t bedtime music, might be too ridiculous for morning preparations, and might not even suit jogging or aerobics. It’s not designed for contemplative moments or getting you geared up for that daunting philosophy lecture. It won’t speak to your condition. It isn’t life music, unless you live in a camp permutation of Gold’s Gym. The Air-like, Gary Numan-lite instrumentals popping up between the songs with hit potential are way lighter than air. I don’t mind ‘em, but also don’t love ‘em. Sometimes you might be pleasantly or unpleasantly reminded of that Smash Mouth or Fatboy Slim song you’ve tried to forget — likely, this will happen on the ska-throb of “Get Fresh With You,” involving male and female voices asking each other’s permission minus the usual polities. Again, voices chop ‘n’ screw in a mildly distorted fashion.
As the Teddybears have suggested, Devil’s Music is not really an album, but a collection of dream collaborations. But, as Robert Christgau has noted, Devil’s Music might be unified by its revival of various 1950s rock ‘n’ roll tropes, which he thinks might be a current trend — for instance, the title-track’s Bo Diddley beat and lounge-exotica tribalism. Christgau reiterates Marxist historian Raymond Williams’ oft-cited claim that “both the residual and the emergent are essential weapons in any battle against the dominant.” Of course, it’s tough to separate these modes from each other definitively or to see Devil’s Music as, conclusively, taking part in a battle against a troublesome “dominant.” But I’m left curious about what this album is capable of doing, or saying, beyond inspiring wiggling or giggling.
Part of what’s silly about this is the incommensurability of each vocalist’s style, to the point of awkward complementarity, with his or her musical backdrop. Likewise, the lyrics involve adjoined incompatibilities, fusions between singer-and-self, singer-and-subject, and singer-and-music, requiring the ambitious dreams of the Teddybears or at least the party-down reunification vibe of their streamlined bombast. For instance, Cee-Lo is all over “Cho Cha” the cat, as represented by the B-52 singers’ meows and mewls. He’s insistent on reciprocating lovingly to his loving and “only friend,” with whom he cannot, of course, communicate traditionally. It’s the repurposing of an overbearing Barry White you always wanted around until he became a mite too frisky, as was inevitable. Again, as with all the tunes, it boils down to empowerment, Cee-Lo’s plea to be taken as he is. His profession of love is responded to with a kitty’s scowl. All these songs involve characters experiencing communication breakdowns — and, as History of Consciousness professor Donna Haraway puts it in her opus When Species Meet, we have to find other ways of relating to other species, other than othering them.
Elsewhere, Wayne Coyne challenges a drugged-out Christian to count the fingers on his hand. Two types of whack-jobs cannot quite relate to each other. Okay, so let’s party anyway.