20
Jul 99

It’s All Right

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The Chemical Brothers – Surrender

There’s very little that’s tougher to write about than enjoyable music. Should you blunder across a record that harrows your soul or corrodes your skull or scrapes your brainstem with iron claws, well, that’s just fine: a great opportunity to put on your Serious Critic’s Hat and call that record Art, as a way of making sure your dear readers know that you suffered for it as surely as the agonised soul who made it. But The Chemical Brothers’ Surrender is not such a record.

Surrender doesn’t break ground or shift paradigms, it won’t make you swoon, it won’t make you think and much of it won’t even make you dance. What it will do is pass fifty minutes of your time smoothly and efficiently, with several tingly moments and not too many stupid ones. If I seem to be floundering, that’s because I am. Surrender, you see, does just that – it gives up its pleasures quickly, freely, unarguably and on first listen: the reviews I’ve seen that try to cast it as the apotheosis of an idiot culture of anti-art seem as shrill and misguided as the ones which call it epochal or a masterpiece.

Surrender‘s been as keenly anticipated as any record this year, though, and contented disappointment seems a pretty inadequate response. Why was it so looked forward to? Because of Dig Your Own Hole, which was the best pop record of 1997 and a number of things Surrender is not: thrilling, original, and most importantly promising. “The Private Psychedelic Reel”, a ravishingly repetitive nine-minute haemmorhage of acid rock and acid house, engendered desperate sequel-lust all by itself – partly because, monumental though it was, TPPR was flecked through with a sense that the Chemical Brothers (and their collaborator Jonathan Donahue) hadn’t quite got there. The song built, plateaued, and faded out, unresolved, as if the band had opened the door into a forgotten room of pop’s sensorium and then decided to save it for another day. We all hoped that Surrender would see that day come.

Surrender is on the surface an expansion of Dig Your Own Hole, and its delightful centrepiece, “The Sunshine Underground” is a spun-sugar variant on TPPR‘s cockeyed lysergic grandeur. The album ends up as a consolidation, though, not an improvement: its only real sin is to never surprise you. The first time you hear “Music: Response” you grin like a loon because it satisfies your expectations so completely, but only like a nice sandwich or a cold pint: it doesn’t go any further. What do you think a collaboration between the Brothers and Bernard Sumner would sound like? “Out Of Control” is unlikely to deviate too far from whatever blueprint might unroll in your head.

One key to the record’s relative failure is in its choice of guests. From Exit Planet Dust onwards, the Brothers have taken every opportunity to use vocalists, guest instruments, and collaborators of every stripe, cherry-picking their most interesting contemporaries in a display of taste every bit as ostentatious as their sampling exploits. Dig Your Own Hole‘s guestlist was perfectly balanced: up-and-comer Beth Orton, cult indie star Donahue, and the biggest rock star in the country. Now Donahue is an overground indie success, Noel Gallagher is a waning, whining decadent, Orton has been replaced with the ditzy Hope Sandoval, and in comes Sumner, who provides a nice link to the indie/dance crossover past, but also seems and sings like he’d lend his lugubrious vocals and can’t-be-arsed lyrics to anything if the money was right.

The combination seems less intriguing than before, and what’s more the band make too much of their famous mates this time. On Dig Your Own Hole, Beth Orton’s looping lament to wasted comedown mornings gradually elided into one of that record’s most assertive beats. And Noel Gallagher’s contribution found his workhorse singing lost inside “Setting Sun”‘s titanic foam-lipped racket. Now Gallagher gets free rein on the throughly pleasant but vastly derivative “Let Forever Be”, and Sandoval’s and Sumner’s vocals are pushed right up front to the detriment of the music (“Out Of Control”s 4/4 brutalism actually works well, but Sandoval’s “Asleep from Day” is the worst thing on the record – a winsome slice of I’m-fucked-up trip-hop which was no doubt seen as being a bit ‘dark’ by its creators). Donahue comes through with “Dream On”, a charming lullaby thing which shows that while there’s a danger of him pushing his damaged yet childishly magical style too far one day, it’s not happened quite yet.

Part of the problem is me, too. When Dig Your Own Hole came out it was just what I needed – a record that would pick me up and make my feet tap without being so aggressively club-centric as to make me feel somehow bad for not being in one (or, indeed, on one). I think if I was 21 and listening to Surrender I’d cherish its confidence and competence and its good-humoured, laidback hedonism. I’d fall for the bits that now I just like, and forgive the bits I don’t. But it’s not all me and my jaded pop head: the thing that used to seduce about the Chemical Brothers, the barriers-down, anything-goes party-popping eclecticism they built their reputation on, is hardly remarkable any more. Listing cool influences (Lothar and the Hand People! Like, far-outsville, cat! And you listen to Carl Craig *too*!) and then making records which mix them all up into a souffle of perfectly chosen, prettily textured sounds may just not be enough anymore. You’ll like Surrender, you’ll play it a lot. I’d be astonished if you loved it.

 

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