Operators Blue Wave

[Last Gang; 2016]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: post-punk, new wave, power pop, electroclash
Others: uppers and downers

The first point is of scale:

This era of the album release as cultural singularity leaves little room in our conversations for minor, modest, and frankly inessential records. In this sense, albums like Lemonade, AMSP, TLOP, ANTI, and VIEWS are the deforestation of whole geographic regions, whereas Operators’ debut LP is just another unobserved tree falling. There’s no question that it makes a sound, but sound itself does not signify anything at all. By the time you read this, there will be new Wolf Parade material available, and most people with that kind of appetite will be sated enough by the results of that smaller-than-Lemonade-scale, but still much anticipated event. We can hope that it will be good, according to whichever standards of measurement we’re supposed to be applying in Q2 of 2016.

Speaking of measurement, as I write this review, more than one month after its release, Blue Wave has, in total, a mere five reviews aggregated on Metacritic, and I can’t fathom that this new Wolf Parade material will be met with similar indifference. This very late review, even if added to that tally, will make absolutely no difference at all. We have to pay attention first in order to care, and unfortunately we are all inflicted with deficits of attention. There’s no event horizon here. Even if you don’t spend most of your time on your phone, you will still be affected by the gravitational pressure of compulsory cultural participation. And now that Wolf Parade’s revival is underway, it seems even more likely that this project’s stillborn debut will amount to nothing more than a footnote in that band’s history. Liberated from the burdens of critical scrutiny and fanbase expectations, Blue Wave exists as a tribute to futility, both in subject matter and commercial form.

The second point is of quality:

In my dubious opinion, Blue Wave is the second best album that Dan Boeckner has recorded to date. Operators marks the syncretist period of Boeckner’s career, melding the tuneful craftsmanship of his Wolf Parade work with the listless, synthetic brutalism of his work in Handsome Furs. This isn’t his first attempt at synthesis: Divine Fits, Boeckner’s collaboration with Britt Daniels of Spoon, attempted to bridge these two modes far less successfully. All of Blue Wave’s 10 songs are sturdy enough to stand on their own merits, save for perhaps “Bring Me the Head,” which hews a little too closely to the Eurotrash template established on albums like Face Control and Sound Kapital. The manic tone of the record feels like Boeckner considered Suicide but ended up closer to the Saturn Strip.

Appreciation of Blue Wave should not be misconstrued as a lack of criticism, however. Catchy as it might be, “Cold Light” sounds less like New Order than Matt & Kim — or perhaps more appropriately, considering Boeckner’s secondary status within his best-known band, Big Audio Dynamite — but even that I mean as some kind of compliment. Every song here is suffused with a liberatory sense of helplessness, and upon closer inspection, these songs have more in common with the self-destructive power-pop template established by dead musicians like the Exploding Hearts and Jay Reatard than, say, Lust For Youth or any other contemporary Peter Hook fetishists. The embrace of a straight-facing pop variant makes sense in this context. If Lemonade is what you make out of lemons, then Blue Wave is what you make when life hands you crippling depression and long-standing chemical dependency.

The final point is of subjectivity:

I’ve preferred Spencer Krug to Dan Boeckner for about as long as I’ve been depressed, which is to say, for the duration of my adult life so far, more or less. I’m thinking about the range of possible reasons why Blue Wave feels so vital (especially since I’ve run more cold than hot on most of his other work), and all I can come up with is that we are the event horizon, our pasts being the black hole whose pull we observe from a safe distance. I’m not religious, and as such, I put no stock in the concept of souls or any immortal, atemporal existence. We can live in the present — presence and mindfulness, states of being toward which we are instructed to aspire, themselves a thoroughly contemporary synthesis of tradition and commerce — or we can allow ourselves to make squat houses of our minds, to loiter in sentimentality for a past that we can’t ever recover. The mise-en-scène of Blue Wave is littered with references to the early 2000s, the era in which I came of age. The album’s major notes are all post-punk and dance-rock, a mostly steady rate of BPM that keeps the album moving. There are, however, more indelible undertones of the post-Y2K-era contained amidst Blue Wave’s dot matrix grooves of Afrobeat, electroclash, and krautrock, of Northern soul, big beat, and Cool Britannia, of the immature belief that we hold control over any significant aspects of our lives, or that, either way, our lives matter.

Let there be no mistake; neither Blue Wave nor this review is a cry for help. When I saw Operators open for Future Islands a couple years back, Boeckner was thin and pale as a line of coke, but he still turned it out, shaking and sweating as if in defiance of the polite, incremental death that we call maturation. Listening to the one-two punch of “Nobody” and “Evil,” I hear kinship in the refusal to grow up, progress, or self-improve — as if the self were a dilapidated townhouse or a 90s model car you buy off Craigslist. It doesn’t matter to me that Operators, as a commercial venture, is a complete non-starter. We are more than our appetites and desires, and certainly more than the critical hierarchies we develop to ensure that cream rises to the top of our cultural conversations. There’s something fundamentally more noble about a failed venture such as this one than there could ever be about Wolf Parade MK II, especially since the previous two Wolf Parade albums were most notable for the ways Boeckner and Krug sabotaged one another at every juncture. Despite references to hard drugs and depression, Boeckner’s songwriting betrays an unconventional joyfulness, marked more by the relief between emotional peaks and valleys than by its strict verse-chorus-verse structures. In fact, in my opinion, this is the first project of his that measures favorably against the solo work of his more cultishly-beloved bandmate and rival.

So you can look forward to the Wolf Parade reunion. I don’t care. Forward, backward, it doesn’t matter; every end is a dead one. Maybe that’s why Blue Wave fills me with such pleasure; its resistance to positivity reminds me that transcendence is often found in loneliness, futility, and desolation, among other sanctioned emotional states of being. At a time when we’re expected to all have strong opinions about the same events, the same albums, as every other damn person on this planet, nothing feels more sublime than Operators’ sleazy, belligerent irrelevance.

Links: Operators - Last Gang

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