Free Energy Stuck On Nothing

[Astralwerks/DFA; 2010]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: cock rock, glam, AOR
Others: T. Rex, Weezer, Lou Reed, Pavement

Consisting largely of cock rock signifiers, Free Energy’s debut record Stuck On Nothing might initially come across as a pointless exercise in derivation. Despite the obvious rockist pastiche, Free Energy are engaged in more than a stale recreation of classic rock reference points; their attitude and approach exhibit a refreshing philosophy that is at least as reverential as referential. Every one of this album’s 10 songs is an unabashed testament to youth in verse; emphasis, in this case, on testament. Though the muscular guitars invoke memories of the macho, misogynous hits of yesteryear, the thematic content is consistently thoughtful and sensitive, with a pronounced transcendent theosophic bent.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that “existence precedes essence,” and Free Energy seem to be musing along the same philosophical lines. These songs are, without exception, engaged in a discussion about the nature of existence. Take “Bang Pop” as an example: although the obvious Def Leppard homage makes the primary impression, the oft-repeated lyric, “Bang bang, pop pop/ When will the searching stop?” evinces a subtextual reading of pop music tropes. The sentimentality inherent in songs about youth and young adulthood is tempered here by this existential approach. Free Energy might be superficially involved in a reenactment of rock history, but they are also working their way through ideas of experience, individual realities, and understandings.

On “Dream City,” Sprangers sings about being “in love with the electric sound.” The song, instrumentally bright and swaggerish — originating from its obvious T. Rex influence — masks a deep undercurrent of melancholy. The narrative voice questions music as a coping mechanism, wondering how personal relationships to music change as we gets older:

“It never feels right
And it’s never okay
Cause we know that every night’s gonna end some day
Tired of feeling bad
But don’t you wonder why
You keep telling yourself it’s alright?”

The enthusiasm and wistful naiveté is justified by Free Energy’s emotionally resonant epistemology. Harmonizing guitars be damned, the song is romantic and aloof in a way that reminds one as much of Lou Reed as it does Phil Lynott. Lead guitarist Scott Wells performs impeccably throughout, helping capture the freewheeling essence of the classic rock canon.

Sequenced toward the middle of the record, “All I Know” is a less ebullient take on the same themes. Sprangers names his reasons to be happy and appreciative before admitting, by way of repeated refrain, that “I can’t let go/ That’s all I know.” Musically, the song is so reminiscent of 90s alternative that it wouldn’t feel out of place on either Weezer [The Blue Album] or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. The vocals initially evoke a Malkmusian distance, but by song’s end, Sprangers’ detachment gives way to a plaintive emoting that feels almost archetypally anguished. Like the rest of Stuck On Nothing, it lacks originality, but succeeds by virtue of its disarming earnestness.

Underneath the near constant homage, there are subtle musical flourishes — likely due to the input of producer James Murphy — that raise the songs above the level of direct imitation. The unexpected echoic effects on “Free Energy,” the horns providing additional texture on “Dream City,” the nervous, sentimental string accompaniment on “All I Know”: these are substantial, personal touches that root these songs in feelings deeper than mere mimicry.

Despite the contrasting lyrical and musical uniformity, not all of Stuck On Nothing’s songs succeed equally. Some, like “Bad Stuff,” drag on a little too long, without resolving their musical components satisfactorily. Others, like “Hope Child,” feel too lightweight to make any lasting impression. This bleeding of songs and styles is Free Energy’s greatest weakness; too often the musical patchwork can feel redundant and discourage closer attention. Repeated exposure reveals hidden depths to these songs, but the most immediate songs, like “Dream City” and “Bang Pop,” are also those that invite attention; the majority of the other tracks, unfortunately, do not.

Lack of immediacy might detract from casual enjoyment, but it has little effect on Stuck On Nothing’s lasting emotional impact. The overriding philosophy, defined on the eponymous opening track, more than compensates for initial impressions of shallowness and shameless musical theft:

“There’s nothing to pray for
There’s nothing to know
We’re never waking up if we never let it go
We’ll never know why we arrive where we are
We’ll never know why we bring the seed in these times
But if you wanna get high kid
Just open your eyes”

This sentiment insulates Free Energy from criticism; it’s difficult to resent the obvious, when appreciation of the obvious is itself the point. Stuck On Nothing is a boozy, lusty hug of a record — an album so loving and large-hearted that its virtues essentially cancel out its flaws. It isn’t perfect, but heck, neither is life. Though timeless to a fault, it is more gratifying (like the band itself) to lose oneself in the endless sound than it is to grimace perpetually at life’s tragic limitations. Free Energy remind us that existence precedes essence, and that the present moment is the only one that truly matters.

Links: Free Energy - Astralwerks/DFA

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