Art Brut Brilliant! Tragic!

[Downtown; 2011]

Styles: Britpop, punk, indie
Others: Clash, Sex Pistols, Pulp, Pixies, Frank Black, Franz Ferdinand, Divine Comedy, etc.

Brilliant! Tragic! , the new album by Art Brut, comes across like the musical equivalent of the “fascinator” — you know, those annoying little hats worn by all the British wanna-bes at last month’s Royal Wedding. Look at me! Look at me! it shouts, I need love too! And it manages, for a moment, to do the trick. It certainly grabs your attention, but only negatively, and then mistakes horror and ridicule for something more positive. Here, the band throws in as many ironic hooks, riffs, shouts, and come-ons as any one album can hold, but it is less Brilliant! Tragic! and more Tasteless! Overdone! All its funny bits seem a little sad, while most of its sad bits come across as desperate. In a way, it raises concerns about the state of England. The British people have long been questioning their support of the Monarchy. But is there really anyone left in the country who still wants to hear half-witty songs about supermarket crushes and dirty weekends? God save the Queen, sure. God save the tiny hat, maybe. But God save ironic Britpop? I say wrap it in yesterday’s papers.

Sure, Art Brut thrive on their punky art-school humor, but their best songs always seemed to convey something of the joy and idealism of what they seemed to be mocking. The song “Modern Art,” for example, captured, in its very sound, the sinister thrill of genuine avant-garde art even while its lyrics mocked the pretension of the art house scene. “Emily Kane,” similarly, served up one absurd twee cliché after another, but damn if the tune, with its giddy melody and spiky guitars, didn’t make you fall in love with the singer’s old flame yourself. But the gods of song and the gods of comedy don’t always get along. Whereas the best pop songs manage to inspire a certain absorption and commitment, today’s most potent comedy demands detachment, an ability to stand smugly aside and harsh on someone else. Here, on Brilliant! Tragic!, these two impulses seem to go their separate ways, to the detriment of both. Working again with producer Frank Black, Art Brut are clearly pushing themselves toward a new musicality, crafting longer, more dynamic and dramatic kinds of song. Eddie Argos, too, seems to be actually singing this time around, rather than merely talking or shouting his lyrics. But the band’s sound was never defined by innovation, and, here, while each song contains at least one or two interesting musical ideas, they’re clearly taking their best moves from Black’s own back catalogue. Worse, at this point in time, with four albums in, the band’s jokes are getting a bit stale. After years of making fun of their own profession, they seem to have painted themselves into a meta-corner. What’s the audience these days for jokes about amateur jazz? Is Axl Rose still a significant comedic target? Listening to this album is like finding an old copy of MAD magazine or a lost package of Garbage Pail Kid cards in the attic. I can’t believe we used to laugh at this stuff.

Everyone’s in fine form here. The band’s tight, and the riffs still sting. But it quickly becomes obvious that all those old jokes about art bores and record dorks served to hide a much more insufferable set of personal traits. In other words, Art Brut’s best songs were always fast and dirty, and the best songs here, too, hustle along so quickly that you don’t mind the personalities within them. “Lost Weekend” launches swiftly into its tawdry tale of a guy who mistakes sex for love. It’s got a great little melody backed by a hip guitar vamp. You don’t care how many times Argos sings, “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you, by saying something stupid like I love you,” because the song is strong enough to stand up to his vocals. Moreover, the solo at the end — a fierce run up and down the scale followed by some intense shredding — arrives at the perfect moment, pushing the song into overdrive and leaving the listener craving for more. The punkier songs on the second half of the album are even better. “Martin Kemp” gets in and out of your head in only 2 minutes and 15 seconds, just long enough to grind some real sparks out of its heavy riff and aggro chorus. Two tracks later, “I Am The Psychic” channels The Sex Pistols at their most raucous and maniacal; the chorus is sheer sonic havoc, clanging cymbals and all, unnervingly intense.

But, man, when this band slows things down, they give you all the time in the world to recognize their flaws. Two songs — “Bad Comedian” and “Is Dog Eared” — plod along for what seems like forever, wallowing in their own repetition and banality. In each, Argos seems to do little more than shout the refrain over and over again, while the band moves through a tedious, no-show arrangement (you have to give Frank Black a lot of credit here for giving these songs what little energy they have). Worse, these song seem to explore Argos’ personality at its most pathetic: the first features an ex-boyfriend whining about a new one, while the second is written from the perspective of a masochistic suitor promising nothing more than persistence. It’s a truism in the world of stand-up comedy that the best comics hide their insecurities behind their jokes, but Argos lets it all hang out in the open here, and the results couldn’t be less humorous. “Bad Comedian,” ironically enough, most clearly suggests that the songwriter is losing his sense of humor. The song’s about as funny as an ex-lover, dripping with self-pity and insecurity. “I spent some time drunk at the Internets.” Really? A George Bush joke? “I bet he signs his name in comic sans.” A font joke? Oh, snap. The song ultimately leaves you siding with the girl who left him.

Sure, self-deprecation has its charms. But Argos’ act only grows more annoying in its honesty. Here, he’s not just making jokes about desperation, but, rather, making desperate jokes for your attention. Oddly, he’s got a ton of talent, a great band, an excellent producer, and lots of committed fans, but he still comes across as needy and overbearing. In this, the most telling song on the album is “Sexy.” “I want to be played in the background,” Argos sings, over a slinky reggae beat, “While the couples drink their wine/ That would be a triumph/ With a voice like mine/ Everyone wants to feel sexy sometimes/ I can make it happen with a voice like mine.”. No chance, mate; you’re a fascinator, not an operator. And we liked you all along. You shouldn’t have changed a thing. Take off that silly hat and get back to what you do best: writing kick-ass punk songs about the shit music you love.

Links: Art Brut - Downtown

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