Dean Blunt Black Metal

[Rough Trade; 2014]

Styles: black metal, post-colonial music
Others: the white man

Here’s a thought: what if Dean Blunt has been playing so hard to get all these years, not because he’s some jealously private individual who doesn’t want every Tom, Dick, and Sally knowing who he really is, but because he himself doesn’t know who he really is? What if the secret when it comes to Blunt is that there is no secret? What if he’s been wearing masks all this time because masks are the only thing available to him?

Then maybe he’d record something like Black Metal. Departing from the “narcotized R&B” and “bargain-basement soul” of last year’s The Redeemer-Stone Island one-two punch, as well as the “comatose hip-hop” of 2012’s The Narcissist II, Black Metal has Blunt masquerading under the “dead white tropes” of reverb-washed folk, starlit Americana, and post-ish indie rock, only to change into the dead black tropes of urbanite dub, anti-social electronica, and starkly ambient grime. But if it would be all-too easy to charge him yet again with artistic tomfoolery and arch self-consciousness, there’s a newfound purpose to his dilettantism, one that invests the album with more weight than anyone had any right to expect.

But where does this “weight” come from? Well, to give a little historical context, it’s been more than 60 years since Frantz Fanon published Black Skin, White Masks, and still communities of African descent are quixotically attempting to avoid discrimination and all the psychological/social/political fallout that comes with it by appropriating the cultural signifiers of their oppressors. In a recent interview with Rinse FM, Blunt declared himself of the opinion that the appropriation by black people of “existing white images […] is not actually really progressive.” This might sound a tad rich coming from someone who up until now has more or less forged his entire musical career on the basis of appropriation, yet people can change, and they can realize that borrowing white iconography and positioning yourself as the black version of Elvis or Kurt Cobain inadvertently affirms the same unjust prioritization of white people over black you’re trying to subvert. Which is why Blunt has eschewed the blatant Stravinsky and Pentagram larceny for Black Metal and opted instead for a subtler mix of sampled-unsampled instrumentation, as if having realized that by extensively reproducing the products of a repressive white system, you can’t help but fall into the trap of confirming this regime as something worth reproducing.

This explains a fleet opener like “LUSH,” which tempers Big Star’s “For You” with jangly melodics and optimistic strings. In amongst its beatific swooping, Blunt chimes in with the half-cautious verse, “Stay out of it/ And everything you see/ Stay out of it/ And everything you hear,” possibly warning us not to perpetuate a society of stereotypes, prejudices, and suppression by engaging with it on its own terms. Similarly plush noises are heard on “50 CENT,” exploiting washy, floating guitars to tranquilizing effect and sporting an angelic turn from now-regular collaborator Joanne Robertson. At first, it’s almost a shock to hear such a run of benign lullabies on a Dean Blunt record, what with the acoustic dolor of “BLOW” and the open skies of “100” extending the pacifying melancholia into the next couple of tracks, but unsurprisingly they’re all permeated and deepened by a lingering unease, a suspicion that something’s not quite right.

The source of this disquiet isn’t immediately apparent, but at the halfway point, Black Metal commences to shed its echoing highway folk, transforming into a barely recognizable chain of nocturnal post-dub and inhospitable electronic skree. It’s in this latter half that Blunt seems to adopt something of a stereotyped persona, with the sax-smattered grind of “HUSH” annotated by such caricatures of aggression as “Your batty’s so hot” and “To all the niggas that knew me/ Sue me,” and with the beautifully austere soundscaping of “Grade” featuring the steel-voiced couplet, “Who’s hot tonight?/ Who’s girl wanna get picked up tonight?” By dint of this stylistic about-face, the album forms what is essentially a dyad, and if Blunt’s pre-game briefings with the likes of Rinse FM and The Wire are anything to go by, such a dyad represents the two opposing kinds of roles available to black people in a post-colonial, post-slavery, post-civil rights, and supposedly “post-black” world.

Because, on the one hand, the serenely wistful opening half finds Blunt — qua “the black man” — losing his formerly intractable distinctiveness in homogenized fingerpicking and balladeering, while on the other, the bullish closing half finds him magnifying those typecasted idiosyncracies that for half a decade now have kept him on the margins. This mirrors the dilemma faced by so many “liberated” black communities today: either assimilate into wider society and lose whatever identity you may have once possessed, or cleave onto this identity and persist in your persecuted role as the mysterious and misrepresented Other. Either way, you end up being pigeonholed and stripped of individuality and uniqueness, and accordingly, Black Metal focuses itself around the lostness and alienation that stems from this predicament. References to an inability to be found or rediscovered are rife: “You never saw me” (“LUSH”); “She got a new nigga/ Now he can’t be found” (“50 CENT”); “Ain’t nobody gonna find me” (“BLOW”); “I’m dying to meet you” (“100”); “I’m not who I’m meant to be” (“PUNK”). And even when Blunt is ostensibly addressing someone else, there’s always the lingering suspicion that he’s in fact having a conversation only with himself. This would account for the stripped-down and comfortably numb “MOLLY & AQUAFINA,” where he regretfully sings,“Because you’ll never be/ The one I want you to be/ Because I know that person is me,” and where the resulting effect is one of perfect isolation and desertion.

Coupled with the hazy sonics of the gentler half and the darkened tones of the bleaker half, these nods to absence and estrangement furnish a picture of Blunt as someone adrift, rootless, stranded blindly in a world where only falsity and fake personae are available. Even when he disrobes himself of the gentility of filmy guitar melodies and Ms. Robertson’s dulcet throat, his prospects don’t improve that much, since the pulsing drum machines of a “MERSH” and the chaotic electro-squall of a “COUNTRY” all unfold within the territory of the clichéd Rude Boy. “MERSH” contains a series of matter-of-fact boasts about drug consumption, while the gloriously retrofuturist “GRADE” has Blunt declaring, “Look at me, look at me/ Bad man wanna be me.” What’s significant about these instances is that Blunt himself criticizes the kind of one-dimensional character they evoke earlier in the album, specifically via “50 CENT” and its line, “All my niggas who think they’re real/ If you know how I feel/ Never mess with explosives, yeah.” More significant still is that this criticism helps reveal Black Metal as a work with the mission of questioning the identities that are foisted on people in general and black people in particular. Even the fact that it has songs called “PUNK” and “COUNTRY” that in no way approximate the punk and country genres is a testament to its later rebellious streak, which refuses to passively accept the pre-given forms/roles others want us to accept and which recognizes that the only authentic stance is perhaps the one that’s aware of the inauthenticity of all stances.

This would make sense of the album’s centerpiece, which ironically is the decentered, sprawling “Forever.” Here, shellshocked pianos, winding sax, journeying guitar, and an incorporeal Robertson all interleave without global coordination, foggily crisscrossing in the assertion that the refusal to assume a readymade identity is tantamount to condemning yourself to meander eternally in a directionless limbo. The piece isn’t without its subtle coalescences and intensifications, such as the gradually solidifying chord progression that materializes after seven minutes, but these all pass in and out of existence independently of each other, never consolidating into a unity for fear of being integrated into the mainstream and becoming yet another one of those dead white tropes. The flipside of this aversion is “X,” an ambient floe of airy electronics, liquid noodling, and brooding piano filigrees that together insinuate that if black communities want to avoid being exploited and expropriated, they’re going to have to remain undefined, indeterminate, and liminal, cut off from the flow of civilization.

But this isn’t to say Blunt is completely effaced beneath ossified conventions and alienating noise, since if there’s one threadbare link between his past selves and the shadowy Babylon of Black Metal, it’s the steadfast presence of women. In amongst the posturing, pretending, and prevarication, they stand as the one beacon of constancy and truth in his world, which is perhaps why the breakup charted in The Redeemer et al. was so catastrophic for him, since it removed the only thing in his life that had any purity or authenticity. Within the plaintive wandering of “MOLLY & AQUAFINA” and its dripping minor chords, he sings, “Riding through these streets/ I’m strapped up with my Nina/ So I don’t worry about nothing,” its dream-wearied lilt suggesting that the dangers of coercive social structures are nullified by his proximity to someone with whom he can be more than a mere type. And even though for the majority of the album, such women serve as barely dignified props for one of his inauthentic masks, they also offer him the promise of an authentic face, a promise he chases in the ethereal streaming of “Heavy,” where he sings after an elusive woman with the lyrics, “I haven’t seen that girl/ So what about her?/ Guess I never knew that girl/ What about her?”

Black Metal provides a few other faint glimmers of hope for self-actualization. In closer “GRADE,” amidst bleak trails of sax and harsh tides of Blade Runner synth, Blunt sends a message to himself and anyone else in a similarly estranged situation. It reads, “You’re not a rerun/ Not just another one/ You’re a new friend/ You just began.” Despite there being a possibility that these stolidly delivered words are something his “bad man” persona would offer as reassurance to an unsuspecting female, it would surely be much healthier to regard them as a pep talk, since not only do they have relevance for every person of African descent who’s ever had to abandon their better selves for the sake of fitting in, but they also offer strength to the rest of the human race, because we’re all pressured into becoming reruns at one point or another in our lives. And hopefully, after all the hype has settled down, the defiance of Black Metal will help us resist these pressures for a long time to come.

Links: Dean Blunt - Rough Trade

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