YACHT Shangri-La

[DFA; 2011]

Styles: art funktronica, indie IDM
Others: Le Tigre, Talking Heads (circa Little Creatures)

What might one have to say On the Best State of an Album and on the YACHT Album of Utopia? Firstly, we can confound that solemn opening by noting that Shangri-La is a seriously funky work, combining irresistible indie tendencies and synth-electronica beats with intellectual smarts in a way that could give a whole new meaning to the term “intelligent dance music.” I was particularly taken with the zany lyrics, which, while they occasionally fall a little flat, demonstrate a thoughtfulness and a breadth of engagement (art, politics, emotion) that mark them apart from their contemporaries. We are treated to Latin mottoes (et in arcadia ego) and to references from John Donne that are cunningly linked in to the album’s themes of ecotopia and global apocalypse. Speaking of references, even a pessimistic, anti-climate denial re-interpretation of Rock Master Scott’s “The Roof Is On Fire” (“The earth is on fire/ We don’t have no daughter, let the motherfucker burn”) fails to irritate.

Thematically, then, this is clearly a concept album, but the concept itself is a little nebulous — we deal with utopia (the eponymous Shangri-La) and dystopia, though contrary to possible expectations we’re spared the ubiquitous Spector of girl group revivals that the title might seem to promise. Modernity is present in oblique references to the ambitions and failures of the eco-scientific project in the industrial age (“Paradise Engineering”). Unlike the individual utopia of Walden and its communal echo, however, there is no sense of a Romantic rejection of technology per se, though the notes sounded in the direction of techne are clearly suspicious. In enunciating this complexity (not to say, at times, conceptual unintelligibility), we may see it as following in the tradition of negative liberty running from Kant and Hegel through Isaiah Berlin, extolling a utopia that is not utopian.

But, as the very concept of the perfect realm implies, we are also concerned with the role of religion; and here (picking up the same theme running through 2009’s See Mystery Lights) the album is both at its most obvious and most didactic, as exemplified in the chorus of “Holy Roller” (“Don’t you worry about God up above/ We’re gonna live life in love”). There’s nothing quite as charming as SML’s “Psychic City (Voodoo City)” — although, apropos the construction of that song, Uptown Top Ranking is hard to beat — but there are earworms and bootyshakers enough to satisfy the most anti-intellectual critic of concept albums, and in this sense it’s both more accessible and more enjoyable than its industrial-influenced predecessor. Finally, zooming in from the interplanetary and the global, YACHT are also interested in the interpersonal, the barriers between us that are transgressed by stepping over the line, by tripping, by intense love likened to a small town cop or a ticking bomb; as Nick Cave put it on More News From Nowhere, “You are the one, you are the sun and I’m your dutiful planet.” In this context, love need be neither dull nor sublunary.

By now, I’ve made the point that there’s a lot going on here, as we swoop into and out of orbit, and make a heaven of hell (or vice versa) — and it doesn’t always cohere. But while the conceptual ambitions occasionally overstep the mark, they rarely get in the way of the cerebral and gluteal-vibratory enjoyment that is to be found. It’s a work no less beneficial than entertaining.

Links: YACHT - DFA

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