LISTEN: THIS IS WHAT THE MUSIC business sounds like. The chatter of managers and A&Rs and precious, elusive ‘talent’. The blips of ex-directory numbers on digital exchanges. The flutter of pages in bulging Filofaxes. The alchemical conversion of hot air into heartfelt resonance. The satisfying accumulation of deal upon deal upon deal that culminates – a few months, a billion years, down the line – in the music, the product. Somewhere deep in there, moving endlessly, obliquely, behind all the petty cutting-edge music-makers, lie the visionary fixers, keeping check on the zeitgeist.
‘Psyence Fiction’ turns the music business on its head, in that it posits the co-ordinator, Mo’Wax founder James Lavelle, as the creator, intrinsically more interesting than the shiny array of musicians he has summoned to do his bidding. The tortuous gestation of UNKLE’s debut album is already being mythologised by Lavelle as a kind of wracked, psychotic exploration of the human condition, with himself – a clubbable label boss with good ears, in essence – at the black heart of the project. Tempting stuff.
The reality, perhaps predictably, isn’t quite as good as it thinks it is. For sure, if ‘Psyence Fiction’ truly reflects the tastes and preoccupations of Lavelle, then he has a prodigious and uncanny affinity for pretty much everything fashionable in Britain right now. Thus the album – totally in keeping with late-’90s, post-tribal eclecticism – brings together cut’n’paste electronica and old-skool hip-hop styling with rock’s currently unbanishable air of melancholy and self-importance. And packages it with plenty of retro sci-fi references. He’s a child of Star Wars, and he still badly wants to believe in The Force.
The prevailing air of ‘Psyence Fiction’, though, is one of clumsy compromise rather than mutual inspiration. Overwhelmingly, there’s the feeling that DJ Shadow – who builds almost all the music here – is uncomfortable in his role as collaborator; that this deeply solipsistic artisan rarely gels with Lavelle’s chosen singers or even comes to terms with the song (as opposed to groove) format of much of the material here.
Richard Ashcroft’s cameo, ‘Lonely Soul’, is typically problematic. Shadow’s trademark splenetic beats, together with solemn strings orchestrated by former Massive Attack arranger Will Malone, mostly loiter awkwardly around Ashcroft’s skeletal vocal line. It’s not until the beautiful ‘Unfinished Sympathy’-style coda, when Ashcroft drifts off on one, trancing and extemporising, that the music rouses itself and finds the confidence to be truly empathetic rather than submissive.
Ditto ‘Bloodstain’: Alice Temple (formerly of Eg And Alice non-fame) appears to make some hackneyed allusions to heroin, a nasty guitar solo gets sampled from AOR hell, and the overall effect is like Sade making a lame hip-hop comeback. Even the reliably supple mood engineering of DJ Shadow’s showcase instrumentals, ‘UNKLE – Main Title Theme’ and ‘Unreal’, are undermined by intrusive (and often suspiciously gothic) guitar breaks that betray an obligation to conform to the project’s ostensible rock aesthetic.
There are far too many guitars here. Two sample-rock thrashers, ‘The Knock’ and ‘Nursery Rhyme’, fronted by the iconic Mike D and the unknown Badly Drawn Boy (who coincidentally shares a manager with Richard Ashcroft), respectively, are full of good ideas and digital brutality, yet strangely unconvincing – like facsimiles of action-packed art riots rather than the definite articles. ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’ at least has the virtue of axe-free subtlety, being all bleak piano lines and scuffling jazz rhythms. But its success depends on your tolerance of Thom Yorke, and here – “[I]Scared of the spotlight[/I]”, as he muses – he’s at his most clenched and self-parodic.
The most successful track, by some distance, is ‘Psyence Fiction”s least rock-friendly. On ‘Guns Blazing’, veteran MC Kool G Rap works furiously in the midst of an apocalyptically murky, futuristic hip-hop barrage not unlike the output of current nu-skool heroes Company Flow. Ironically, UNKLE legend suggests Rap’s recruitment was the one A&R decision made by DJ Shadow rather than James Lavelle, which probably explains why ‘Guns Blazing’ is the album’s sole moment of complete cohesion…
And which inexorably leads us to realise, once and for all, that the peculiar genius of DJ Shadow does not need anyone telling him what to do. If ‘Psyence Fiction’ is a failure, one suspects that fault lies squarely with Lavelle rather than the patently gifted men and women employed to flesh out his nebulous concepts, that full-on creativity has been stifled by the adolescent-dream-come-true of forming a supergroup. That, in the end, is the overriding theme of this intermittently brilliant but ultimately self-aggrandising album: not the universal soul, but the sense of high seriousness, epic scale and gathered stars being merely an end in themselves. As a grandiose, bloated, egotistical folly, it says all you ever need to know about the state of the music business in 1998.