Exit Planet Dust: The Chemical Brothers (1995)
Note: this is part of the Britpop Album Showdown series.
The Britpop Era (as we are dutifully terming these years of the mid-90s) were notable for the breadth of sound they encompassed. In 2016, the ubiquity and availability of music means that the idea of musical ‘scenes’ has probably passed into history. Back in the nineties, almost preposterously specific musical scenes came and went with bewildering regularity: crusty, grunge, shoegazing, New Wave of New Wave, baggy… an endless list of shortlived fads with a stupid name. Britpop as an entity was no less stupid a name, but somehow it became an entirely inclusive cultural phenomena that encompassed a wide range of styles, rather than being focussed on a narrow set of clothes, bands and haircuts.
Maybe, Britpop was actually prescient of the current fashion for people to say they love “music” – as if it were all one and equal.
Hence, we find ourselves here: an album of electronica a million miles away from the kind of trad rock pedalled by Oasis but of a place and time that would see the band collaborate with Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher on several occasions. If ‘Britpop’ meant anything at all, it was a commonality of spirit.
Now for the hard part. This blog is concerned with the art of songwriting… and in any traditional sense, there are simply no ‘songs’ as such on this album. Chorus… verse… middle 8… lyrical themes… these are things that in this context simply have no analog. It’s obviously completely possible to connect to this music in profound ways – to put it on your turntable and love the fuck out of it and make it a core part of your being – but it is a very different kind of connection you might get from, say, knowing every word to a Smiths album.
Indeed, the lack of lyrics is perhaps one of the primary reasons that rock critics have always struggled to get a grip on electronica. More than any other form of music, it demands to be experienced rather than reflected upon. It is music to hear, not think about – even more so than metal.
Or at least that’s the excuse I’m offering up ahead of this run-through. In truth, this entry has sat in my drafts for months while I’ve tried – and ultimately failed – to get a handle on a language to address this album from a critical songwriting perspective. There are no songs here, so if this run through sounds a little negative, please don’t take it to mean I don’t like the music (this has been on and off my CD player for 20 years now).
1. Leave Home
Opening track Leave Home very much defines the sonic template of the album: over a relentless groove, an unknown voice chants that “the brothers gonna work it out.” It sounds full of intent, but it’s a nebulous intent that can’t define what the “it” is that the brothers are actually going to work out.
I’m tempted to say there’s a live human bassist at work here, as several times there’s a distinct feel of string-bending going on. In fact, although I described the groove as “relentless” a couple of lines above, it’s worth noting that the Chemical Brothers do have a great sense of texturing and pacing – with multiple riffs and distinctive sections that come and go and thus prevent the track from ever getting boring.
2. In Dust We Trust
If anything, In Dust We Trust is more aggressive than Leave Home with a foundation initially built on a fairly standard rock riff of 1-3-5 that you could easily imagine being re-purposed from a band like Black Sabbath. Breaks at 2m and 4m take the heat out of the propulsive momentum of the track, and towards the end the various riffs from throughout cut across each other under the kind of freewheeling sound effects that must work an absolute treat in a club setting (I wouldn’t know: I’m forty fucking one). This escalation of sound is what keeps the track in a state of constant evolution. In effect, it is similar to an extended jam session – think of a band like Can – and I’d be very interested to know to what extent it was extemporised in the studio. I suspect it’s a “live mix” of the kind first used by The Beatles on Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966) which is less structured and results more from deft handling of the faders.
3. Song to the Siren
Beginning with a wordless distorted vocalisation that has the air of a muezzin, this song actually follows the classic structure of a rock album by slowing the pace down after the explosive start of the first two tracks. The opening beat has something of the air of classic hip-hop about it and sounds like it could easily have been lifted from a Led Zeppelin track or someone of that ilk.
As the song develops, the beats begin to free up with more flams and a subtly off-kilter change in tempo near the end. Sonic surprise is already a recurrent theme of this album. While like most drone-based music it clings to a limited tonal cluster, the Chemical Brothers are self-aware enough to know that repetition can only take you so far.
4. 3 Little Birdies Down Beats
This sort picks up the wordless vocalisation of the preceding track and develops it along a very different lines, with a far more aggressive drum pattern that first veers towards jungle before slowly mutating into a more ‘classic’ electronica pattern over the first couple of minutes. Again, there are a variety of synth riffs here which repeat hypnotically as the band introduce new sounds underneath – constantly evolving the sound in the same way as a live band would jam. The machine-gun snare rolls from around 4 minutes in are particularly great.
But, for me, this is where the overall effect of the album is already starting to wear thin and speaks to the tension between this genre of music and my own tastes. We’re now four songs in and the album’s singular trick has been revealed: a tasty beat, a riff or recurring motif, and a layering of sound over that motif, occasionally broken down by further sound effects, changes in drum patterns or some kind of echo-laden pause.
It’s hard to make that sound like it isn’t a criticism. I really enjoy this music. But as I said at the outset: this is music to experience, and while individual tracks are excellent the overall effect in the context of an album becomes almost conservative. Not every band needs to vary its style on every track or be needlessly compulsive in making every song “different” but without a lyrical point of view, all you’re left with is a series of tracks operating in a very similar sonic space.
5. Fuck Up Beats
The shortest track on the album fails to live up to its title. In under 2 minutes, it comes and goes with little more than a vocal sample and a beat that doesn’t sound all that fucked up to my ears. The band are just treading water here.
6. Chemical Beats
Another song of excellent riffs set against an interesting backdrop of beats (particularly the “live” sounding drum loop that kicks in an around the 3 minute mark) and sound effects. The envelope filters on the band’s Moog get a thorough 4 minute workout and we’re onto the next track….
7. Chico’s Groove
A change of pace! The Chemical Brothers finally allow the tempo to drop to create something more spacey and relaxed – deploying massive echo to a gently optimistic chord progression along the lines of classic psychedelia from the 60s and 70s. Fragments of words drift in and out of the background and the synths get to do some synthin’. 4 minutes of pleasant head-nodding pass.
8. One Too Many Mornings
Beginning with a subtle polyrhythm created by fading out Chico’s Groove under the new track, One Too Many Mornings continues the gentler mood set by its predecessor with a breathy, wordless vocalisation keening over a wash of synths and a blissfully sinuous bass groove. In effect, these two tracks act as a “morning after” to the preceding sonic attack of upbeat tracks, and doubtless were the soundtrack to many a journey home after the clubs had closed and the sun was peering over the horizon.
9. Life Is Sweet
Life is Sweet breaks the mood with an swing back to the relentless swaggering beats of the earlier tracks and throws in the album’s first genuine vocal track – supplied by Tim Burgess of The Charlatans. In effect, this is the first true “song” on the album and one that foreshadows (more successful, IMO) collaborations with Noel Gallagher and Beth Orton (track 11).
As I mentioned in an earlier look at the Stone Roses’ comeback single One For All, songs that cling to one root note for most of their running time need to either keep it short or find a way of creating interest through instrumental choices, lyrical themes and unexpected structural twists – unless relentless monotony is the point (which is a completely valid artistic choice: see anything by Can)
While I like this track, I’m not 100% certain it succeeds on these terms. If I had to guess how it was constructed it would be this: The Chemical Brothers write a track, have it couriered over to Tim Burgess on a CD, he spends a few days with it looking for a vocal line and melody, then goes to the studio to lay down his ideas.
That’s all well and good, but it’s kind of a precursor to the modern, industrial method of pop music construction that sets my petty, grouchy, old man teeth on edge. Pop tracks are mainly built from the rhythm track upwards these days and packed with hooks, rather than developed organically from lyrical and musical ideas – hence the increasing sameness of most contemporary chart hits and the lack of distinctive voices among their performers.
The reason I feel this way about this track is actually down to the lyrics as much as anything else. It feels like Burgess had a couple of lines lying around (“I think you’re goin’ soft, I know its stiff for me”) and used them up in a completed lyric that really doesn’t have a viewpoint. This suits his laid back – bordering on lazy – delivery* but doesn’t create a track that’s particularly engaging for me.
10. Playground for a Wedgeless Firm
If Life is Sweet had a vague treading-of-water vibe to it, this highlights how electronica can be used to create something dark and interesting. The beat here is probably my favourite on the album – that snare sound alone being worth the price of admission (and the delicious reverb speaks to the care given to detail throughout). The recurring motifs are interesting and diverse (is that a sped up dulcimer riff?) with heavy references to the soundscapes created by Public Enemy and – maybe more pertinently – Dr. Dre for N.W.A.
It arrives, does it’s thing in a cool, menacing three and a half minutes and leaves. Perfect.
11. Alive Alone
In comparison to the earlier collaboration with Tim Burgess, this Beth Orton number seems very much more focussed on an underlying song. My gut feeling (and I have nothing to back this up) is that this is much more of a collaboration. While there is a now-familiar sense of dreamy repetition, Orton’s hypnotic voice sits snugly in a soundscape of distant guitars(?) and a fat, dubby bass.
While the tone has a bliss, there is a beautiful, strange sentiment to Orton’s lyric which undercuts the album’s general tone of celebratory partying and menace. Sitting as it does at the end of the album, it serves as a gentle, contemplative downer that arguably reflects some of the emptiness of modern existence, as if Orton is somehow cut off from the rest of humanity**
No way of knowing if she’s ever coming back
No way of knowing if I care or not
No way of knowing if she’s right or if she’s wrong
No way of knowing if I’ll carry on
And I’m alive
And I’m alone
And I’ve never wanted to be either of those
And over 5 perfect minutes, the album comes to a gorgeously downbeat close, giving Exit Planet Dust
Ach. I had this album on a lot during the mid 90s and I still dip into individual tracks from time to time, but during this re-listen I found myself struggling to concentrate on the music at all. Perhaps the adoption of this style of music as a generic soundtrack to action movies, adverts and goal-of-the-season replays has blunted its edge and simply served to date the effect.
Maybe it’s also just changing personal tastes. I’m far more interested in the formal disciplines of songwriting and the way that lyrical themes can mesh with musical decisions to make something greater than the parts these days. On an almost completely instrumental album, you are left with a sonic palette and a mood which leaves nothing much to talk about apart from “I really like this mood”. And maybe here, what was once thrillingly fresh, now actually sounds more dated to my ears now then, say, Blur – even though that band are more obviously ‘traditional’ in terms of instrumentation.
The album does shift mood (compare the opening and closing tracks for instance) but for too often consists of dynamite grooves that fail to develop beyond their initial excitement save for some obligatory dial turning. It’s weird, because play me any individual track and I’m nodding my head and getting into it, but… as an album?
I guess I’d just like a key change or a chorus from time to time. So sue me.
As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that the trad album format isn’t really the best setting for music at this time. The current milieu of downloading individual tracks probably suits this kind of music far better than having to conform to the constraints of an 11 track album. Just a thought. Against that must be allowed the fact that maybe the succeeding album (Dig Your Own Hole, 1997) is a more satisfying work and this may just all be a result of the band getting to grips with the long-playing format.
Simultaneously then, this album is a hit and a miss and I find myself conflicted by my reaction to it today.
*Compare his performance here with his contemporary tracks for the Charlatans such as Crashin’ In and Just When You’re Thinking Things Over.
** Arguably, this lyrical theme is even more effective on Orton’s other, similar collaboration with The Chemical Brothers Where Do I Begin (Dig Your Own Hole, 1997). I’ll let you be the judge