Negativland Thigmotactic

[Seeland; 2008]

Styles: electro-folk, parody music
Others: they’re pretty much on their own here

The electronic collective Negativland has spent the past 20 or so years of their existence in direct artistic and political engagement with the legal and intellectual implications of electronic music and sampling. Their most famous works include Dispepsi, which spent its running time playfully attacking cola, and “U2,” their audio piece that spurred a media frenzy and a four-year legal battle.

On their most recent release, Negativland moves away from both the corporation-baiting tactics of previous releases and their traditionally noisy, often highly abstract sound. Thigmotactic is ostensibly the group’s first “pop” album and, perhaps surprisingly, this is actually a fairly apt description of its sound. The album is mostly a pop-folk album with electronic elements flitting around the edges. Songs are built around more-or-less traditional verse/chorus/verse structures, guitar melodies, relatively straightforward electronic beats, and emphatic vocals. Clear traces of the group’s famed collage technique are found almost only in the various electronic squeals that lurk in the background, while the majority of the collage and cut-up techniques were used in the creation of the album’s lyrics.

Does a pop Negativland album that at least theoretically retains some of the collective’s avant leanings work? On lead-off track “Richard Nixon Died Today,” it does, and stunningly. Effective pop elements combine with slightly unusual instrumentation and electronic elements to create an immediately engaging track with a hint of the strange and the subversive. The studied disaffection of the lyrics — “Oh I guess he was okay/ He was the president everybody hated” — is called into question by the emotive musical backing, all acoustic guitars and keening electronics. It works as a complex yet affective pop while retaining the urgent yet playful political element of classic Negativland. In a lovely touch, fragments of Nixon’s speeches, including his famous “the people have got a right to know whether or not their president’s a crook,” are rendered little more than a rhythmic element.

If only the rest of the album worked so well. By the second track, the lyrics have already devolved into easy joking surrealism — “Lying on the grass/ I wish that I could kiss your ass.” This lyrical content is too vague and scattershot to create any interesting political commentary or to dig up much of an emotion beyond mild amusement. Their delivery is often too strident and blunt to allow room for interpretation beyond the most obvious satire — such as in “Truck,” a facile and silly description of how milk relies on trucks, set to faux-country jangle.

Too often, the pop elements just aren’t strong enough to create any sort of emotional engagement, resulting in tracks that sound like simplistic parody music. It’s too direct, too obvious in its musical gestures, to such a point that songs are grating rather than involving. This sort of audience-distancing renders any intended political or artistic critiques nearly irrelevant; the music can’t offer a compelling enough reason to spend the time searching for it. This sort of pop music only works as subversive art if it also works on at least some level as pop music.

Despite all these reservations, Negativland's musical palette is fairly fresh — the group still knows how to uncover unusual sounds, and their attempts to shape those noises are exciting when they’re actually successful. “Richard Nixon Died Today,” along with a few other moments on the album, suggest that when Negativland respect the pop they’re making, rather than treating it as a simple object of satire, the results are surprisingly powerful. The rest of the time, the results aren’t a whole lot more than just mildly irritating.

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