“We’ve made such advances…”
Welcome to Postmodern Accident, where enquiring minds want to know: how exactly does the new Legendary Pink Dots album measure up? Now that I’ve had more than a month to absorb it, will it ultimately help me recapture my love for the band, or am I ready to write them off entirely?
Unlike what the Dots have been doing for much of the last 10 years, Plutonium Blonde focuses first and foremost on studio craft, rather than attempting to reproduce their live sound on record. The best pieces, such as the opening “Torchsong,” the nostalgic “Faded Photograph,” and the chaotic “An Arm and a Leg” may not break any new ground, but the studio experimentalism conjures up an earlier direction once passed over rather than expanded upon; within the first five minutes of the sinister chopping of “Torchsong,” I feel I am listening to Shadow Weaver Part 3. With Ka-Spel declaring, “So much to kill for!”, the album opens on a darker note than anything the Dots have done previously. The electronic effects have the same sort of uber-digital, clean detail that has been all but missing from the band’s more recent organic forays. Considering that 1994’s 9 Lives to Wonder, as good as it is, truly marks the beginning of the Dots’ obsession with their live performance rather than their records, this emphasis on studio wizardry is a welcome development, even if the band remains entirely oblivious of recording trends and modern gimmickry.
That being said, I wish Ed and Phil would occasionally let Niels sit out for a few rounds. I respect his place in the band’s history but the throwback hippie sound of his horns in certain contexts still horribly irritates me. His work on the otherwise guitar-oriented “A World with No Mirrors” really isn’t terrible, but when coupled with Edward’s somewhat strangulated vocal performance, the track overemphasizes both the band’s dated approach to songwriting and the production constraints that have left the record sounding of slightly lower fidelity than just about anything the LPDs have recorded since The Golden Age (their golden age?).
This is a small gripe, though. The album really is remarkably better than anything the band has done in a decade. Its most common relative is probably Your Children Placate You from Premature Graves but other than perhaps the brief “My First Zonee,” it never really seems to be pandering specifically to children and girlfriends. “Zonee” is in fact quite weird. It’s the album’s “Crumbs on the Carpet,” or possibly “When Lenny Meets Lorca.” Overtly poppy and based on a major chord arpeggio, it exemplifies those moments when the Dots don’t seem to realize that they’ve mutated into aliens who are completely unaware that nobody on earth is truly clamoring for music like this.
Once again, the Dots have produced a record with a mind-bending variety of stylistic twists and turns, often within the same song. “Rainbows Too?”, which perhaps takes its name from the classic Tear Garden epic “You and Me and Rainbows,” has a nine-minute, three-part format that allows it to switch gears dramatically from a percolating pop song to a slow-pulsing, ambient space passage and back again. Although they’ve done this kind of thing before (“The Andromeda Suite,” for starters), the song is a strong and adventurous track that helps establish that the band might be back on course. Similarly, “A World with No Mirrors” drops into a dark ambient passage just as it starts to wind up, and “An Arm and a Leg” is a spoken spaz-out piece—like “The Saucers Are Coming,” but with the stoner rock jams reverting to bleepy electronic freak-outs that are more in line with Ka-Spel’s solo work.
Despite its strengths, I’d go so far as to say Plutonium Blonde could possibly be the worst-sequenced album in the Dots’ long career. Once upon a time, they released nearly everything as a concept album, no matter how muddled or overlabored, or else they meticulously edited everything together to produce an ever-flowing suite of sometimes-disparate pieces. Here, they bother with neither, following epic synthscapes with odd, sappy folk experiments unfortunately carried over from the All the King’s Horses era. A simple playlist reshuffle can remedy the problem of the sequence but not the frustration it inflicts. As is, “A World with No Mirrors” and the sing-songy, banjo-laden “Mailman” feel completely out of place, when they could have been so much more effectively positioned elsewhere. For example, if the slight “Mailmain” segued directly into the mighty “Torchsong,” the creative juxtaposition would prove unbearably evil.
As it stands, only the last third of the album flows well, dominated mostly by languid and tranquil (tranguid?) electronic instrumentation. The trance-inducing “Oceans Blue” finds the band almost in Eno mode but with a patented LPD spin, putting forth repetitive ambience (which could be loop-based) for nearly 8 minutes only to interrupt it suddenly with an ominous, rickety motor that rudely jolts listeners out of their comas. This kind of brilliance proves that the Dots’ most boring excursions of the recent past have been primarily the result of laziness by not tending to the finer details. After the brief “Savannah Red,” an instrumental blip that showcases the album’s only musical bass line/rhythm combination, dissonance returns in the perfect album closer, “Cubic Caesar,” which is so saturated in listless barbiturate haze that I find it extremely difficult to muster the energy to hear another song immediately afterward.
In conclusion, I’m more surprised by this record than I am disappointed, and though I’m not going to run out and buy it in 20 different physical formats as I might have done a few years ago, I’m perfectly happy with my $10 digital download. Make of that what you will…
And see you next time!