By Scott Creney
Never is completely insane; it’s the only thing in the world that makes any sense to me. Not since Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad has a recording artist so effectively conveyed the chaos and noise of everyday life. This is what it feels like to be alive in 2012 — connected to everything and more isolated than ever.
It’s a million incoherent voices screaming at you to shut up. It’s social media taking self-consciousness and self-censorship to undreamed of places. Always imagine who might be listening, who might interpret your words in the worst way possible. Don’t mention the Olympics without prior approval. Now is not the time to discuss the ownership of guns, or the distribution of weapons. Take your personal information and store it in the clouds.
The sound of machines, and people, struggling to process information as efficiently as possible, Never embodies our societal rat’s nest even as it manages to transcend it. There’s a human center at this record that lifts it up out of sonic overload, a cluttered morass, and turns it into deeply affecting art. This music isn’t a mirror; it’s a statement. There’s a difference.
There’s advertising everywhere, even in my dreams. It doesn’t make me want to buy anything; it just makes me want to die. Governments don’t work. Society doesn’t work. Thirty years ago The Clash ranted about the indignities of factory work, of civil service. Oh, how very fucking quaint. These days you’re lucky to work at McDonald’s. And some people will tell you even that should be considered a privilege.
Welcome to Bolivia, as viewed through a smartphone.
I’m not talking enough about Never, about how fucking great it sounds. It works as pop (in its melody, its exuberance, its now-ness). It works as avant-garde (in its originality and abrasiveness). It works as hip-hop (in its assembled sound, the vocals used first and foremost as rhythm). It works as dance (in its grooves, its sense of abandon). It even works as rock (in its sonic assault). Never makes everything else around it sound archaic and dull. Micachu and friends are so far ahead of the game it hurts.
In a rock critic sense, in a year-end-poll-linear-evolution-timeline way of thinking, Never does what The Velvet Underground did in the 60s, Eno and disco did in the 70s, Sonic Youth and Nation Full Of Millions did in the 80s, Loveless did in the 90s, and Missy Elliott/Timbaland did in the 00s (I’m breaking it down into decades to make it easier for critics to understand). It opens new sonic doors and expands the possibilities of popular music.
People are missing this album so far. It’s passing them by because it doesn’t sound like what they expect groundbreaking music to sound like. But here’s a question: If critics knew what groundbreaking music would sound like, wouldn’t they just make it themselves? There’s a smug superiority at the heart of contemporary music criticism, the certainty that the critic knows everything, that I don’t think is healthy. I believe most critics today, first and foremost, are frightened — of looking dumb, or of being confused. I don’t think it’s good for the critic, and I certainly don’t think it’s good for music.
The ideal position? Neither above nor below the artist, but each entwined and grasping.
‘Holiday’ twists and distorts the ‘Then He Kissed Me’ riff until its nearly unrecognizable. This is a good place to talk about the voice, the speaker of these songs. In songs like ‘Holiday’ or ‘OK’, it’s impossible to tell where irony ends and sincerity begins. When one person sings Are you sure you’re okay?, we have to question whether or not they actually care. And when the other person responds Couldn’t be better, you realize you have no idea how anyone feels in this conversation — about themselves or the person they’re speaking to. We live in a time when fewer and fewer people are able to discern someone’s tone, to the point where some people have suggested developing a font that allows us to signal when we are being sarcastic. There’s a palpable sadness at the heart of these songs, frustration at the constant inability to connect with one’s fellow humans. It is part of Never’s genius that even at their most sincere the songs feel tinged with contempt. And even at their most scornful there is still a degree of love.
‘Heaven’ starts off like Eno’s ‘King’s Lead Hat’, but more relentless, more focused, wired on adderall or possibly something stronger. It swallows all the fitness fads and diet crazes and spits them out as art.
Like our public personas, the instrumentation of Never is shaped and distorted through technology. Sounds shift and adapt to their environment, never standing still, no moments of introspection that last longer than 15 seconds.
What you call your personality is only an accumulation of images. All of my friends on anti-depressants are depressed. All of my friends on anti-anxiety meds are on the verge of a breakdown. All of the drugs that work are illegal, and even those are going to fuck you over at some point. But to take this world straight? Who the hell manages to do that?
There’s no happy endings, not anymore. Just fleeting moments of pleasure than never manage to last. Thank God this album’s one of them.
It sound like all the ugliness of the world, yet its beauty makes me weep.
Unlike our esteemed publisher, I am not prone to gushing. But this album leaves me grinning wildly and filled with hope for our stupid, dystopian future. Never is a classic. It is the sound of music trapped in a web, immersed in the psychedelics of machines, internet hallucinations.
The album ends with two songs called with ‘Nothing’ and ‘Nowhere’, but even as Never signals nihilism in the titles, it can’t manage to turn off the sentimentality completely. These last two may be the two sweetest, most lilting songs on the album. In a claustrophobic record filled with few moments of relief, Micachu and The Shapes refuse to abandon their hope for love.
There’s nowhere I’d rather be, she sings. And for once in this album, it sounds like she means what she sings. This affirmation makes Never a testament to the human spirit, to our potential for empathy and compassion in an age when our daily existence is mediated by machines. Micachu’s music puts technology to work in order to create beauty and transcendence. By the end of the album, Mica Levi is gasping for breath, but she doesn’t sound exhausted — not even close.
Album of the year, if you’re still paying attention.