Ambition without impact
Today, people are rapidly drifting towards the dissolution of genre as a concept. Every instant, creators are churning out wider catalogs than ever before and the accessibility of said catalogs means that creators are pulling from a wider range of influences every time they make something. For the most part, this has been good. Artists like 100 gecs, Billie Eilish, HEALTH, JPEGMAFIA and countless others have shattered conventional boundaries to great acclaim. Of course, not everyone can succeed, but not every unsuccessful project is a total failure.
TOBACCO has been breaking genre barriers for nearly a decade, and has established himself as one of the more important electronic artists in modern music. His albums and collaborations include styles as varied as indie rock, noise rock, hip-hop and power electronics. His latest album Hot Wet & Sassy even starts to pick at the scab of pop music, but of course, runs it through a filter until it is rendered unrecognizable.
From the jump, the album is immediately engaging. Grumbling synths and robotic vocal melodies power the record, making for one of the more eccentric listening experiences of the year. This is especially true on “Stabbed by a Knight,” with its roaring, distorted guitar is wholly captivating. By far one of the most exciting textures in music this year, it grabs people by the collar and refuses to let go.
Much of the rest of the album does this as well. “Centaur Skin’s” eight-bit synth progression paints a cyberpunk world filled with light bikes and galactic invaders. The pleasurable tone of the track pulls people’s guard down just enough that when the roar of synths on “Pit” and “Babysitter” kick in, people are just vulnerable enough to feel smacked across the face.
For all the areas where the record is successful, it lets down in only one regard, feel. While pleasurable and fun, only a few songs succeed at eliciting emotion. Particularly, the fire of Reznor on “Babysitter” adds an urgency that much of the album lacks. Despite the engaging sound choices, nearly every moment floats by. There is, outside of commentary on sounds, little to engage with. The lyrics are either nonsensical or distorted to the point of inefficacy, and the songs themselves are never given a long enough runway to fully take off. Still, as a sound exercise it is more than competent, but it lacks impact and spirit, causing it to cast a dull sheen despite its ambitious nature.
This becomes especially noticeable on “Body Double” an inert, whirling song that attempts to blend the wild guitars of Sonic Youth with the vocoded effects of TOBACCO’s usual sound. It, along with “Perfect Shadow” both attempt to tilt, albeit briefly, into the realm of ambient experimental. Ultimately, neither track brings enough energy to match the forward thinking choices they make.
This is only disappointing because it’s clear that TOBACCO is capable of better. Based on his time in Black Moth Super Rainbow, his previous albums and his collaborations with other artists, we know what he can do. Hot, Wet & Sassy is just not as compelling or challenging as much of his other work. For every moment that it challenges the listener, it pulls back on being pleasurable and vice versa. It rarely is both at once like so much of the rest of his work has been. Despite all this, the ways in which TOBACCO toys with genre remain the most interesting part of Hot Wet & Sassy. Watching the ripples cast by his bastardized take on pop will provide countless hours of entertainment in the coming years.