Album review: MIA – ‘// / Y /’ (NEET/XL)

It may not quite be the equal of past glories, but it is further proof that Miss Arulpragasam is one of our most fascinating stars

You could easily let [a]MIA[/a]’s third album be obscured by the campaign of media manipulation, shock-and-awe polemic and fame-as-art fire-drawing that preceded it. As her face is obscured by YouTube timebars on the sleeve, it could vanish behind a cloud of controversy. It’d be a shame, though, because that’s not what it’s about.

It barrels in camouflaged as agitpop, true enough. ‘The Message’ revels in almost self-parodic cyber-paranoia. “Headphones connected to the iPhone/iPhone connected to the internet/Connected to the Google, connected to
the government
”, Maya’s brother Sugu hisses over a sickly zombie beat and a wailing air-raid synth. For 57 seconds.

From there on in, ‘MAYA’ is, like its namesake, scattershot and undisciplined, a jumble of styles, tones and identities that makes little sense on first listen. Parts dissolve on further scrutiny, but parts are pure, flashing brilliance, a lightning cognitive connection of word, idea and sound that few do so well.

The album is front-loaded with heavy, grinding, clanking tracks. ‘Stepping Up’ cuts into ‘The Message’’s ideological false start with the ripping sound of a slowly-stalking chainsaw. “In the club, all together, rub-a-dub… M-I-A, you know who I am” intones Maya surlily, back on her sweaty dancefloor home turf, as a throbbing wompy bass announces [a]Rusko[/a]’s presence. The provocative, exuberant ‘XXXO’ meanwhile makes cavernous beats and Zombie Nation electro synths the opening gambits in a massive, blatant come-on. It’s a stone-cold belter. Lust and its attendant vulnerabilities covered, ‘Teqkilla’ glugs its fill of the demon drink. At points, ‘MAYA’ is the more mature album she promised. Here, though, it’s just gobby and pissed, a stream of alcohol brand name puns.

At the heart of the album, though, lies a peculiar doldrums. ‘Story To Be Told’, for all the promise of revelation in its title, is dragging and sluggish, Maya’s treated vocals intoning vague fronts and half-scribbled manifestos like, “The writing on the wall’s been beaten to a pulp”. ‘Lovalot’ finds her in prowling tigress mode, promising, “I fight the ones that fight me”, but the shearing, shuttering rhythms of the track soon run out of battle-spirit.

From there, though, the album expands out from aggressive, oppressive beginnings into space and beauty. Most surprising is the gentle, aquatic cod-lovers’ rock of ‘It Takes A Muscle’, the former baile-funk demoness getting her lighter out for a slow-jam full of goodwill for her fellow man. It is, against all sense, gorgeous. Just as beguiling are the rich, trip-hoppy ‘It Iz What It Iz’ and ‘Tell Me Why’, a swaying, spiritual ballad of treated gospelish vocals and anthemic drum tattoos. Just in case you were getting too Zen, though, there’s ‘Meds And Feds’, a raucous, barbaric, skull-stomping collaboration with Sleigh Bells, and ‘MAYA’’s crowning glory, ‘Born Free’. Powered by [a]Suicide[/a]’s ‘Ghost Rider’ but cheerleaded by Maya’s bratty, punky, amazing vocal, it remains as storming as when it first ram-raided the internet with that video. “You could try to find ways to be happier/You could end up somewhere in Ethiopia” rants Maya. Which is, of course, arrant nonsense. Much like ‘Anarchy In The UK’, or much of the Manics’ debut. It may be a cliché, but semi-informed politics and shooting off at the mouth with no particular authority is exactly what great pop stars do. Which do you prefer, MIA’s open-ended gobshiting or Frank Turner’s earnest Clashisms? I know which side of the fence I’ll be spray-painting.

‘MAYA’ then closes with the robotic lullaby of ‘Space’, Maya refusing the ideologue’s role in favour of a more human identity… “I need to spend some time with you/There’s nothing more new on the news”.

As a whole, ‘MAYA’ doesn’t have the effortless playfulness of ‘Arular’. It doesn’t have the dazzling, sexy assurance of ‘Kala’. It’s not the world-claiming masterpiece it could have been. But as an evolutionary step from world-party-queen towards a more complex beast, it’s intriguing. It has moments you’ll be tempted to skip, but also those you’ll come back to again and again. And for better or worse, right now, MIA is one of the most infuriating, fascinating icons in music. Celebrate her. Stick with her.

Emily Mackay

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Clickl here to get your copy of ‘// / Y /’ from the Rough Trade shop.

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