Former Disney star enlists The Flaming Lips and Ariel Pink on a thrillingly weird surprise album
Album review: Everything Everything - 'Man Alive' (Geffen)
Get off that sofa and stub out your joint; Manchester's new breed just made ideas and ambition sexy again
You might think that’s nonsense – Foals took great pains to namedrop highfalutin composer Philip Glass around ‘Total Life Forever’, and the biggest influence on These New Puritans’ ‘Hidden’ was 16th century choral music. It doesn’t get much more intentionally intellectual than that, and both albums did well. But the difference is that these weren’t their debuts. They snared their audience on their first records, which were still clever but playful, giving them a solid fanbase to lead into uncharted, potentially pretentious territory. In comparison, EE and their clever debut seem like the annoying new kid at school who shows off how smart they are.
But what’s overlooked by those quick to shout “PRETENTIOUS!” is that they truly excel at having fun. Amid the Beyoncé-does-barbershop singing, XTC riffs and mondegreen lyrics, it’s the central artery that runs through every aspect of ‘Man Alive’. Despite suffering from a flattening remaster of the original single, opener ‘MY KZ, YR BF’ tells of getting caught shagging someone else’s lady in tones that veer from frightened monkey whimpering to cuckoo-clock R&B harmonies. They even manage to top fellow pop perverts Wild Beasts in the sublimely ridiculous stakes – ‘Photoshop Handsome’ is about an existential crisis triggered by airbrush trickery, and ‘Come Alive Diana’ sounds like the theme tune to a gameshow where contestants compete to resurrect the deceased princess. At no detriment to their songwriting abilities, if you’re taking this seriously then you deserve to be condemned to a lifetime of proud meatheaded cock-rock.
Clearly, EE like nothing more than getting giddy on ideas. Sometimes they get tangled up in them, which isn’t helped by the sequencing – by the time ‘Final Form’ hurdles along after four multifaceted songs, seasickness sets in. ‘Man Alive’ could do with more slow numbers for a breather, particularly as those present are utterly beguiling; ‘Two For Nero’, a peculiar monastic chant about fatherhood, and ‘Tin (The Manhole)’, which recalls the awkward beauty of The Futureheads’ ‘Danger Of The Water’ meeting The Postal Service’s timid bleeps. Without that balance it can all feel impenetrable, like a high concept musical fortress.
But that’s what’s so rewarding about them – they don’t volunteer everything on a plate next to a menu of neatly listed influences. It’s down to the listener to work out what the chuff Jonathan Everything is singing about, and to rejoice in their own misheard versions of lyrics. Certain images recur throughout – the fox on the album artwork “frolic[s] on the abattoir floor” in ‘Photoshop Handsome’, but trudges through a snowy pollution-tainted landscape on ‘Tin (The Manhole)’ – and there’s no way of understanding their significance. The title of the record seems to link up with a theme of deconstructing and rebuilding the body to understand how it works: the fizz of ‘Leave The Engine Rooms’ offers to “tell you a secret about yourself”, and famously misheard single ‘Suffragette Suffragette’ (is he really not singing “who’s gonna sit on your face when I’m not there?”?) dismantles Jonathan tongue by lung. That’s what they do with pop – layer incongruous harmonies and bastardised riffs to make us look at it anew. If that sounds like too much effort, then ‘Man…’ isn’t for you. If however, the thought of it as a brilliantly unsolvable puzzle appeals, then bow at the feet of pop’s new Picassos.
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