Big Bang Day: The Legendary Pink Dots’ Plutonium Blonde (Popshifter)

The Paard, The Hague, Netherlands
September 13, 2008

Halloween. . . the perfect time for a new Legendary Pink Dots album. Not because of the atmosphere of terror and chaos that permeates their music, but because, like Halloween, their music points to an attitude where time isn’t linear, where worlds and times are not separated but layered over one another. Music and costume both offer the opportunity to slip into another time, life, or world, full of new possibilities. Or new terrors.

Theories on time aside, the tour for the Dots’ new album, Plutonium Blonde, kicked off on September 13 although the actual album isn’t on sale officially until October 7. Along with the new album, a new management is in place, one which has a rather refreshing view on how to interact with the band’s long-standing and often very loyal fanbase. There’s been a T-shirt competition, a street team, and an extensive North American tour, which begins October 16. The last few years have brought the band a large American fanbase, and it looks as though they’re trying to make the most of that now.

If this is the idea, this is the album to do it with. It’s always hard to place one of the Legendary Pink Dots’ albums within their own tradition, but overall Plutonium Blonde resembles their more melodic, mellow albums like From Here You’ll Watch The World Go By or Any Day Now. This is because it’s mostly song-based, the length of the songs is not extreme, and it’s a one-disc album. It also is mostly lyric-based, though less traditionally narrative and more absurdist in the actual subjects and lyrics.

On the whole the album seems to be on the more accessible side, though not completely. This is especially notable in the lyrics of “My First Zonee” and “An Arm And A Leg,” with the usual slightly lame puns and awkward wit. Dripping onto the designer shirt that cost you an arm and a leg. But what about the other arm? The other leg? These kinds of little, uncanny, jokes form the primary lyrical tension point on this album, alienating and distorting the narrative they are inserted into. This willingness to pursue the dramatic—from the empathic to the absurd and into the deadpan—is actually one of the Legendary Pink Dots’ biggest strengths as performers. An aesthetic that argues opposites instead of continuity would argue for an opposition between silliness and serious anger or fear, but in reality fear and humor are closely linked, and Edward Ka-spel is always wise enough to make use of that.

Aside from that, there is a lack of obvious drama. The angst and uncanniness are hidden behind a film of deceptively delicate wistfulness. These kinds of paradoxical songs—”Faded Photograph,” “A World Without Mirrors,” or “Mailman” with its banjo and sing-song melody—are always popular here in Holland, probably for their folky air.

There are some heavier songs: “Torchsong” is rather more techno-based and reminiscent of the band’s earlier rave-influenced songs like “1001 Commandments,” while “Cubic Caesar” is disorientating and nightmarish, telling of futuristic, technology-induced isolation and boredom.

Many of the songs were, of course, premiered on the previous tour. It’s clear from the final versions (as well as the new live versions) that they were developed rather extensively during that time. At this show, the premiere of their new tour, expectations were high.

Holland is basically the band’s home country, but they didn’t tour here for 12 years in between The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse and Whispering Wall. The past year has seen a remarkable number of performances here, and starting the new tour here seems to show they’ve made their peace with whatever kept them away for all those years. It’s striking to see how to most of the audience, the intermittent years might as well not exist, with Crushed Velvet Apocalypse songs actually hailing ovations.

Despite the fact that much of the album was already played on the previous tour, and the setlist was mostly the same, the overall feeling has changed. The Dots have mellowed over the last few years and the last tour was a silly and relaxed affair, but the tension has crept back in now. The set was considerably shorter this time, with an emphasis on popular songs and not on continuity.

Songs were mostly from the new album (obviously) but they left out “An Arm And A Leg,” which admittedly had bewildered audiences on the last tour. The rest of the set was mostly made up of Crushed Velvet Apocalypse songs, which is the most popular album here and which went down very well. The heavier songs were absent however, and the only audience assault that took place was via Silverman’s saxophone. The light show in 2005—a heavy affair of slide-filters and 60s Canterbury-scene type effects—has become ethereal and woodland-like, with mixed and softened coloured lights relying on creating a hush rather than noise. Cutting back the band to four members has had a minimizing effect as well.

The more normalized look was cause for some confusion, however. One person tried to shout out for “Neon Gladiators” and was promptly denied by Edward Ka-spel. Everyone has their favorites, however random they may be. “What an experience,” I heard a girl say to her friend afterwards. Sarcasm aside, the Legendary Pink Dots always are. Go see them before the Hadron Collider’s black hole swallows us all.

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