Here’s another outstanding contemporary post-punk record from North America.
When I first heard the Calgary band Preoccupations’ eponymous second album, I was simultaneously so impressed and so bewildered that I had to do some background research. I just couldn’t understand where they were coming from, and how they managed to hold together and irradiate such clashing intensities: the no-nonsense masculine guitar rock thrust; the elaborate and ornate pop romanticism; the uncompromising sounds of vacuum cleaners, outer spaces and oceanic swirls; and in the centre of it all, a pulsating, emotional heart.
My investigation turned up some debatable clues: the bass player is also the lead vocalist; the keyboards are played by one of the guitarists; the members of the rhythm section are childhood friends; this album is based on collaborative songwriting. A video of the band playing live at a radio station yielded some more questionable findings: an incongruous Russian hat. An obscure band’s t-shirt. Red fingernail varnish. One converse shoe off.
Art rock, glam, new wave, new romantic, industrial, dark wave, radical shoegaze, prog, space rock, avant electronica, experimental noise, ambient – the album is made up of many different bits glued together, both in terms of the song structure and the combination of parts in a single section, some of which sound vaguely familiar and some utterly unique. There is so much to listen to. It perhaps shouldn’t work, but it does spectacularly.
The vocals and general tone range from gritty anger to high-strung vulnerability to wounded crooning to wide-eyed psychedelia. The lyrics tackle big issues and thoughtful abstractions in a way that’s reminiscent of Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab, who used to write long words and erudite sentences that didn’t quite fit into the song’s scan pattern. But where Sadier’s peculiarities infused her band’s music with charming foreign chic, here the result is an unsettling sense of skewed foreignness from actual native speakers, intent on forging their own idiom. “Leaving our footprints in concrete”, as the singer says in “Degraded”.
The gorgeous, minimalist yet warm design. The gruff single-word song titles. The unfashionable brevity of 9 songs in 38 minutes. The radio-unfriendly 11:26 magnificent minutes it takes the album’s centrepiece, “Memory”, to unfold. In the nick of time, this recording takes Preoccupations a nudge away from the knit-brow bluster of their debut album (released under their former name Viet Cong), just enough to achieve a present-day version of the 11th-hour doomsday beauty of such classics as Joy Division’s Closer or David Bowie’s “Heroes” and “Ashes to Ashes”. Layered and resonant, jaded and edgy, saturated and polyphonic, motoric and moving, cryptic and incomprehensible, feverish, anxious, encompassing and stimulating, barely resistible: this is music for the world we live in.