Artful and Clever
The latest release from Britain’s Art Brut is, as its name suggests, both brilliant and tragic, or perhaps brilliantly tragic. Or tragically brilliant. It’s difficult to definitely pin either adjective to the band’s fourth studio album, produced by Pixies frontman Frank Black. Released with its own comic book and replete with snarky dark lyricism and a lot of banging rock ‘n’ roll, it’s a raw, rough art (art brut means just that in French) but it has its moments.
Art Brut excel at creating songs teeming with verbal witticisms, delivered with vocalist Eddie Argos’ deadpan declarations. What sets Brilliant! Tragic! so far apart from its predecessors is Argos’ newest talent: he’s learned to sing. Sort of. His talking works well for the tongue-in-cheek tone of most Art Brut songs, but the half-speak-half-growl quickly becomes a grating stylistic tic, like an unfortunate version of AC/DC in its talkiest moments. While that’s generally distracting, it works perfectly for “Bad Comedian,” a ripping sarcastic song that shows Argos at his cleverest.
Behind the vocal delivery, though, is a playful experiment with tonality and powerful guitar-driven bridge that shows the band’s possibility. What’s most brilliant and tragic about the album is the sense that something better lies just behind the surface, that Art Brut could be creating music as smart as its lyrics. Songs like “Martin Kemp” and “I am the Psychic” are almost generic rock songs, loud and noisy with nothing exciting in their style or structure.
The album’s last two tracks hint at a new direction that Art Brut could (and maybe should) take. “Ice Hockey” slows down the album’s frenetic pace with an acoustic beginning before turning into a funky jam with syncopated rhythms, a raw guitar riff, and a groovy bass line. It’s starkly different from the rest of the album, as is the swaying, dreamy “Sealand,” a meditation on the romantic notion of lovers becoming their own principality. Envisioning Eddie Argos crooning a love song is pretty hard. “Sealand” manages it with a beautiful bridge that shows the band’s musical ability, its delicate, melodic guitars harmonizing together in the album’s final seconds.
Brilliant! Tragic! is far from a perfect album. Yet much of art is just that: flawed, rough, raw, and brilliantly tragic all at once.