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The Legendary Pink Dots, "Angel in the Detail"

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cover imageOne thing that I have learned time and time again over my years as a Legendary Pink Dots fan is that Edward Ka-Spel's muse is an eternally unpredictable one: wonderful songs can appear anywhere, anytime, and in any shape and high-profile releases are not necessarily always going to be the strongest ones.  Nevertheless, The Legendary Pink Dots' recent run of albums on Metropolis has reliably featured some of the band's tightest and most hook-driven songs, which certainly appeals to those fans hoping for a reprise of the band's late '80s/early '90s heyday.  I am not sure that I would include myself in that category, as I am quite fond of the band's more hallucinatory and abstract fare, but I do believe that Ka-Spel can be a legitimate pop genius when he is properly inspired and able to rein in his more indulgent tendencies.  Happily, this latest release (two years in the making) finds him in especially fine form, offering up an especially concise and focused array of great would-be singles along with some more outré forays into skewed psych-pop experimentation.  While I very much enjoyed the more playfully warped side of 2016's Pages of Aquarius, I feel quite confident in stating that Angel in the Detail is the strongest album yet to emerge from the band's Metropolis era.

Metropolis

One of the elements that has always fascinated me about The Legendary Pink Dots is that their albums often feel like dispatches from a world significantly more poetic, magical, and mysterious than the one that the rest of us live in.  I have a legitimately difficult time picturing Edward Ka-Spel ever doing something as mundane as standing in line at a post office or buying groceries, as his lyrics seem to come from a twilight realm of permanent sardonic whimsy.  Occasionally, however, the outside world becomes insistent enough to bleed into his vision and Angel in the Detail is one such release, though it would be a stretch to view it as political in any conventional sense.  Instead, veiled references to current events pass through the prism of Ka-Spel's artistry to emerge as something that feels reassuringly wise and hopeful (even though there is plenty of wryly scathing commentary on falling empires, ugly futures, and the dissolution of genuine human connections).  Moreover, Angel in the Detail is often quite a perversely fun album, teeming with propulsive grooves, catchy melodies, and playfully adventurous psych flourishes.  In some ways, it feels like The Legendary Pink Dots are throwing a party as the world burns around them, but it would be more apt to state that they are merely maintaining their sense of wonder and joie de vivre as this phase of human history draws to a close and another begins (or does not).

My initial impression was that the album is frontloaded with all of its best songs, but that sense has become increasingly muddled as I listen to it more and more.  Still, the first few songs are definitely the ones that feel like the strongest singles.  The opener "Happy Birthday Mr. President" is probably the would-be hit of the album, as it is built upon a wonderfully insistent beat and strikes a perfect balance between melody and lysergic production wizardry.  Nevertheless, it is the following "Double Double" that feels like the album's liltingly gorgeous centerpiece, approximating a languorously sensual and subtly hallucinatory kindred spirit to Spandau Ballet's "True."  Obviously, Ka-Spel and his lyrics are the heart of the piece, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that it would not be nearly as great without Erik Drost's fluid and inspired guitar playing.  The band had no shortage of other imaginative and unexpected pop twists saved up for this album though.  The most notable example is inarguably the following "Junkyard," which combines a remarkably muscular bass line with a drum machine beat that sounds almost like slowed-down New Jack Swing.  Elsewhere, "Neon Calculator" rides a thumping kick drum, jangling guitars, and a burbling synth motif into an impressively tight and danceable maelstrom of deranged noise and sax squall.  As much as the album's many ambitious twists delight me, however, the achingly lovely ballad "Itchycoo Shark" comes very close to stealing the album with little more than Ka-Spel's voice and some simple synth arpeggios (and a truly killer chorus).  Curiously, it prematurely burns out in a roiling guitar crescendo, then kaleidoscopically segues into a completely different piece ("Isle of Sighs") rather than following through on its initial promise.  Nevertheless, it may very well contain the most beautiful and perfect four-minute stretch of the band's career, though I remain perplexed by the decision to mash it together with another piece.   

Notably, a similar trajectory occurs with the album as a whole, as the impressive cavalcade of tightly structured, hook-filled songs starts to go off the rails with the sixth song ("My Land/Parallels") and veers into much more eclectic and experimental territory.  While I am very much not a fan of the sing-song sixties psych-pop pastiche of "Maid to Measure," the remaining four pieces are quite an interesting mixed bag.  The weirder, more extended pieces tend to be the best of the lot, particularly the blooping, seething "My Land" and its hushed, eschatological second act.  The closing "Red Flag" is another ambitious delight, unfolding as a wonderfully slow-burning and moody pop song that takes some surreal detours over the course of its eleven minutes (including an especially lovely choral interlude).  It makes for an impressively strong and focused finish for an album that seemed like it had started to wander off its path and lose its way.  Moreover, it adds one more great song to the pile already amassed earlier.  As far as I am concerned, Angel already clears the bar for a classic album by the end of the fifth song, so the occasional flashes of inspiration on the second half are icing on the cake.  The Legendary Pink Dots are far too playfully weird, restless, and experimentally minded for me to ever expect an album that fits neatly in my personal vision of a flawless whole, but they offer something better instead: they still manage to surprise and move me after four decades of releasing albums.  When Ka-Spel and The Silverman are at their best on Angel in the Detail, the results are as stellar as anything from their purported golden age and that is extremely heartening to hear.  With this album, The Legendary Pink Dots feel like a wonderfully reinvigorated band at the peak of their powers.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 30 September 2019 20:34  


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