Spiritual Machines
Emotion Meets Electronics on Three New Albums

I’m writing this from limbo right now.

This season of Doctor Who, the 31st, has been one of the program’s very best. New Doctor Matt Smith was clearly born to play this role, and new showrunner Steven Moffat overcame some early hurdles to deliver a fine, fine set of stories, all of which wrap together in a 13-episode arc. I’ve been excited about new Doctor Who every Saturday since Easter, but because I live on this side of the pond, I’ve had a few hours of limbo every week, between the episode airing in Britain and becoming available online.

These limbo hours are exceedingly difficult this week. The season finale, “The Big Bang,” finished airing about an hour ago, and spoiler-free reactions I’ve seen have been mixed. The penultimate episode, “The Pandorica Opens,” was amazing, and if Moffat sticks his landing, it will cap off an outstanding season. But I don’t know if he’s pulled it off yet, and I won’t for at least six more hours. It’s frustrating.

So here I sit, distracting myself by writing another silly music column. This week, I’ve got three remarkably different artists who all rely on electronic beats and computers to create their music. And yet, all three have delivered remarkably emotional pieces of work (yes, even the one without any lyrics). Dive in? Sure, let’s.

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A decade ago, I named Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP the best album of 2000. I’ve gone back and forth on that decision since. At the time, I felt we were witnessing the rise of an Important Artist, one with a deep satirical bent and incredible skills at the mic. Marshall Mathers is still a thrilling piece of work, one that leaps over lines of taste and social responsibility with manic glee, and hands out cop-outs like Twizzlers.

But Em’s subsequent work has blunted the impact of his first two records. He closed out his opening trilogy with the surprisingly sensitive The Eminem Show in 2002, then fell flat on his face with 2004’s Encore, a childish, vile, overlong waste that did incalculable damage to his legacy. And then he disappeared for five years, and no one missed him. It wasn’t that long ago that Eminem had the pop cultural reach to pull off his grand-scale satire, but alter ego Slim Shady only works if impressionable people are listening to him.

Last year’s Relapse appeared to be the final nail in the coffin. Half the album was a riveting travelogue through drug detox hell, but the other half was a depressing retread, pulling up all Mathers’ old tropes: graphic violence, celeb-baiting, and complaining about his mom and ex-wife. Relapse offered nothing new, and tried so hard to be shocking that much of it was just boring. Eminem still has the skill – his internal rhyme structure is second to none, his rapid-fire delivery mesmerizing. But he ran out of things to say 10 years ago, and every album after The Marshall Mathers LP (or at least The Eminem Show) has been unnecessary.

I guess, then, it’s faint praise to call his sixth album, Recovery, the least unnecessary of Eminem’s latter-day career. But you know what? I don’t want to damn this album that way. Recovery is a genuine surprise – far from being Relapse’s evil twin, this is Mathers finally flipping over his own story and starting again. This is, for Eminem, a remarkably mature album – Slim Shady is name-checked but never appears, Mathers actually apologizes for wasting our time over the past decade, and he spends 16 tracks trying desperately to prove that he’s still worth listening to. He doesn’t do this though hip-hop bravado, though. Recovery sounds like one of his 12 steps, an album about doing everything possible to be whole once more.

Does that sound boring? I guess it depends on what you want from Eminem. Ever since The Eminem Show I’ve been pulling for him to make an album like this, one that’s heart-on-sleeve sincere and still lyrically dazzling. Given how deep Mathers has gone before, how much of himself he’s revealed, I couldn’t figure out why playing Slim Shady still held any attraction for him. On Recovery, Mathers dispenses with his multiple personalities, thereby denying himself his cop-outs, and raps as himself for an entire album. This is exactly what I’ve wanted for a long time.

I can’t tell you how bracing it is heaing “Talkin’ 2 Myself” for the first time. The album’s second track, “Talkin’” is the first of many songs here about Mathers’ healing process, but he actually cops to the fact that Encore and Relapse weren’t good discs. “I got something to prove to fans ‘cause I feel like I let ‘em down, so please accept my apology, I finally feel like I’m back to normal,” he says, and it’s like a gauntlet. After that, Recovery has to deliver, and for the most part, it does.

The problem is this: instead of just going ahead and making a comeback album, Eminem has written an album all about making a comeback album. Once the untitled hidden track fades, you almost expect the real record to start. But as a statement about coming back, it works well. The beats here are strong, but for the first time in ages, Eminem actually elevates them with his wordplay. His collaboration with Pink, “Won’t Back Down,” is a grimy march, and Em spits the lyrics out like a gatling gun. “Cinderella Man” is a highlight, the melodic vocalists giving it an earthy feel, and “Almost Famous” is a modern Eminem masterpiece.

Here’s how good Eminem is on this album. On “Talkin’ 2 Myself,” he makes a big deal about the fact that he once considered writing a diss song against Lil Wayne, humbly concluding he’d get his ass handed to him. Seven songs later, he gives the first half of “No Love” to Wayne himself, and then, in the song’s second half, blows him out of the water. The final stretches of “No Love” are astounding, Mathers skipping through a hundred rhythmic changes and rhyming every word except the ones you expect. It’s a better diss than anything he could have come up with.

I’ve been talking a lot about Eminem’s road to healing on this album, and I don’t want to give a wrong impression – he’s just as foul-mouthed as ever. When he’s not rapping about his own struggles, both with his career and his relationships, he’s making Michael J. Fox jokes and talking about making bulimics puke. Most of his jabs are clever this time (“Stick my dick in a circle, but I’m not fucking around”), but if you think he’s turned over a new leaf, you’re wrong. This is Eminem embracing every part of himself, even the ones that laugh at jokes about Parkinson’s disease.

But there aren’t any murder fantasies here, and there are several songs that show a genuine weakness, often a verboten thing in hip-hop. And he uses his own image to his advantage on “25 to Life,” a raw breakup song that sounds like just another assault on his ex-wife, until the final lines. Maturity is a relative thing, I suppose, and odd as it may be to say, the fact that there aren’t any songs here about killing his own children with cyanide or dismembering Britney Spears is an improvement. He’s all grown up, kind of.

Some have called Recovery a slog, and I can see what they’re talking about. This isn’t nearly as provocative as the button-pushing impishness of Eminem’s first two albums, and after years of poking at society and running away laughing, it’s hard to take Mathers as seriously as he wants here. Some of these songs are also frustratingly average (“W.T.P.,” “So Bad,” “Seduction”), and the album is, as always, too long. Much of it is informed by the 2006 death of his D12 bandmate Proof as well, leading to an even more straight-faced tone.

But to me, Recovery is the album on which Eminem finally takes hold of his prodigious talent and uses it to make himself whole. There’s a real emotional heft to this record, behind the constant swearing and graphic imagery, and for the first time in 10 years, I have no buyer’s remorse. This is a hugely enjoyable record, and hopefully the first step in a new direction for Mathers. For the first time, he sounds willing to take responsibility for his words, his influence, and his life, and to these aging ears, that’s more compelling stuff than even Slim Shady’s most delirious fantasies. For the first time in a long while, I’m looking forward to whatever Mathers does next.

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If you’re a singer in a rock band, perhaps the most cliched thing you could do right now is turn to electronica for your solo debut. Thom Yorke blazed the trail with the godawful The Eraser, but more recently, artists like Julian Casablancas of the Strokes have taken the dance-beat plunge, and if you find a band more committed to the “rock thing” than the Strokes, you let me know.

Now Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke has done the same thing with The Boxer, his just-released solo bow. It would be incredibly easy to slate this record for following a trend, except for two things. First, it’s not that much of a stretch for the lead singer of Bloc Party, a band that has had a strong electronic element for its whole career (and amped that element up considerably for 2008’s Intimacy). And second, Okereke has written a strong group of songs here, and made what turns out to be a very good album.

Bloc Party has a huge sound, synths and guitars and big beats colliding on nearly every track. The Boxer, on the other hand, is sparse – opener “Walk Tall” is built on nothing but an insistent drum pattern and a wobbly bass noise. The songs here are danceable, yet melodic, and Okereke’s voice is folded, spindled and mutilated, but always front and center, carrying the song. “Everything You Wanted” could be a Bloc Party track, Okereke digging deep for a wailing, compelling chorus.

I thought I would like songs like that one the most. Two others on The Boxer are more traditional: “Unholy Thoughts” comes closest to indie rock, with a steady bassline and guitar part, and “All The Things I Could Never Say” is a dark ballad, the kind Bloc Party did so well on A Weekend in the City. But those aren’t the tracks I keep returning to. The explosive whirlygig of “On the Lam” draws me in farther, as does the near-ambient “The New Rules.”

My favorite, however, is the first single, “Tenderoni.” The beat is simply unstoppable on this song, and all I need is the descending bass line, Okereke’s voice and the thump-thump-thump. This one gets my blood pumping like no other here. You can call this his Thom Yorke move if you want, but unlike Radiohead’s main man, Okereke has fully integrated his electronic textures with his knack for writing kickass, moving songs. Yes, it’s a trend, but Okereke transcends it. The Boxer is pretty damn great.

* * * * *

Which brings us to the Chemical Brothers, and if anyone’s in dire need of a comeback record, it’s these guys.

Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons exploded onto the scene in the late ‘90s with a pair of extraordinary big-beat workouts, Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole. At the time, electronic music was just nudging its nose out of the clubs and onto the radio, and the Chemical Brothers showed what it could be. They invited famous singers into the studio to collaborate, including Noel Gallagher, Bernard Sumner and Hope Sandoval, and for a while, they could do no wrong.

But in the last decade, they’ve settled for passable instead of excellent more often than not. I’m still not even sure how I feel about 2007’s We Are the Night – it sounds like a Chemical Brothers tribute act. It seemed like the Brothers had played their last card, and had shown everything they could do. I don’t even remember 2005’s Push the Button. I have it, I know I’ve heard it, I know it features the aforementioned Kele Okereke in a guest spot, I just don’t recall the thing at all.

So yeah, the Brothers are in desperate need of a reinvention. And they’ve picked a strange way to go about it – Further, their seventh album, is almost entirely instrumental, features no collaborators at all, and is meant to be heard as an unbroken 52-minute suite. That’s right, the Chemical Brothers have decided to recapture the public’s imagination by challenging them with head music, and delivering a full-on assault on the instant-download singles culture. And I kind of love them for that.

I also love Further, the first great Chemical Brothers album since the ‘90s. I love that Simons and Rowlands expect listeners to settle in and absorb this thing as a whole – opening track “Snow” is five minutes of drumless blips, which leads directly into the 12-minute “Escape Velocity,” an ever-building crescendo of sound. The Brothers aren’t cruising at full power until the album’s 11-minute mark, and even then, it’s still building.

Throughout Further, the Chems keep the beats subtle and the sounds watery. The whole shebang doesn’t truly kick in until track four, “Dissolve.” From there, the songs get heavier and more propulsive, until the submerged-sounding closer, “Wonders of the Deep.” (I wish that one had gone on a little longer than its 5:12.) Some parts of the album are weaker (such as the repetitive and annoying “Horse Power”), but as a whole, as an emotional ebb and flow, the thing works.

Best of all, it’s the first Chemical Brothers album in a decade that doesn’t sound like it was made on autopilot. It’s not going to knock the music world on its back like Dig Your Own Hole did, but Further is the finest album these guys have made since those halcyon days. If you have the patience to curl up with this album for its entire running time, it will reward you – it is defiantly an album in an age of quick-hits, and a remarkable one at that.

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And now it’s time for the 2010 halftime report. Today is the last day of June, and that means half of the year’s new releases are already out. The last three months have seen some corkers, so this list has changed considerably since the first quarter report in March. If I were forced to publish my top 10 list right now, under threat of death by vuvuzela, here’s what it would look like:

10. Devo, Something for Everybody.
9. The Dead Weather, Sea of Cowards.
8. BT, These Hopeful Machines.
7. Hanson, Shout it Out.
6. Janelle Monae, The Archandroid.
5. Rufus Wainwright, All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu.
4. Beach House, Teen Dream.
3. Yeasayer, Odd Blood.
2. The Lost Dogs, Old Angel.
1. Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me.

Joanna’s still hanging on to that top spot – hard to beat a triple-album of really good stuff. But there’s a new Choir album out this week, and new things from Crowded House, Ben Folds, Arcade Fire, Ray LaMontagne, Eels, the Hoosiers, Sixpence None the Richer, Richard Thompson, Interpol and the Walkmen coming over the next three months, so everything could change. (And yes, the Lost Dogs album really is that good.)

Next week, some notes from this year’s Cornerstone festival, and a review of that Choir album, Burning Like the Midnight Sun. Now, I’m off to watch “The Big Bang.” Come on, Moffat, blow my mind. (Update: He did, sort of. More next week, or the week after.)

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See you in line Tuesday morning.