The new Bug album, London Zoo, is impeccably modish, not simply a cutting edge melange of the urban darkstuff of dancehall, grime and dubstep, but also a kind of compendium of /homage to the influence of Jamaican musics in the UK, featuring a whole gamut of MCs from the old-timey, (Tippa Irie) to the Grimey, (Flowdan), Women (Warrior Queen) middle-aged Poets (Roger Robinson) and the occasional academic (Spaceape). A fair old cross section of everything vital and pulsing about hi-tech, Late Capitalist, diasporic London, brought to you by the truly fearless, multidisciplinary maverick Kevin Martin, unflagging torch-bearer of post-punk’s miscegenatory idealism, unquestionably one of the most intelligent men in music today.
So why is it so unpersuasive, so unengaging?
The problem here may just be my stubborn desire for a bit of excitement. Much of Kev’s strength previously was his ability to deliver rock thrills in a non-rock format. Too noisy for the hip hop heads, too hip hop for the rockers, Techno Animal’s “Brotherhood of the bomb” for example, was exactly right for me. Same goes for The Bug stuff, it’s best when it’s frenzied, violent, over-cranked, antisocial, “Run the place red”, “Killer”, the majestic, “Boom Boom Clat.”
Now excuse me while I go way off message.
The nasty question that won’t go away for me, listening to this album, is one of authenticity. The problematics of authenticity, at least in terms of listener response, can’t simply be magiked away with a “ but there’s no such thing as authenticity anyway” move, I don’t think. There are, after all, more or less persuasive performances, some so congruent to the formal requirements of an appearance of authenticity that for a moment any sense of their mediation disappears. We’re susceptible to experiences of authenticity. On way in which performance ( let’s include any interaction) is delightful is when it aims at and attains an experience of authenticity, it must appear to be addressed to and for the benefit of the listener alone and not to the idea of formal appropriacy in itself. The momentary self-forgetfulness of authenticity, the ellipsis of the beautifully delivered performance ( I think of “what’s Hecuba to him or him to Hecuba, that he should weep for her,” sorry for my Hamlet obsession) leads on to that moment where there really does seem to be a truth in the notion of the soul, the self-presence of speech and all that wonderfully consoling humanist guff, the delight of the enchantment in language being shared equally by performer and observer, a moment of deep recognition/liberation ("when Big Others overlap!"). The flipside is (summarily) the dizzy frisson and demonic revelling in the knowing inautheticity of camp*.
In the same way, if you’re having a conversation with someone and you decide, “You don’t really mean that,” there’s no amount of insistence/brilliant argumentation that can persuade you they really did. And the response, “well in what sense does anyone really mean anything”, while opening up an interesting speculative conundrum is unlikely to look like anything other than a dodge. The experience of someone being inauthentic/phoney is the sense of mismatch between how they feel and what they’re saying, they’re the moments when the Big Other stands out in sharp relief, when the performance seems to be for its benefit/ to fulfil purely formal demands. That seamlessness has an emotional correlate, an undercarriage which keeps the whole performance moving smoothly along: a full, unselfconscious commitment to the ideas or attitudes you’re espousing. There’s a whole complex of dynamic responses that go along with a speech act, neurological, muscular, chemical. Try telling someone you don’t love that you love them. They won’t be fooled. You can ply them with gifts and protestations for the rest of your life, at best they’ll forgive you for not loving them, but they still won’t believe you do. If you don’t look and sound like you mean it, you don’t mean it, no matter how much you might want to mean it. **
It’s this kind of feeling that’s hovering round this new Bug album for me. It’s not that it’s contrived, it’s that it seems contrived, it feels like his hearts not in it, he’s not fully committed enough to the contrivance to make it disappear. This is high-handed of me, I know, but listening to London Zoo, I can’t help but feel it’s a record that’s been made for some third party’s approval. A record designed to woo a particular set of people/the Zeitgeist/ some notion of being a cutting-edge urban Auter which gives it a curiously stilted quality. It’s interesting. But it isn’t exciting, it isn’t moving, or really surprising, nor is it very danceable. There might be all kinds of punctilious rhythmic and textural detail, but there’s plenty of flat-out duds (actually there always were in Bug albums but the highs made up for it, here: the cavernous steam-punk dub of “Poison Dart”). Spaceape ludicrously over-eggs the pudding on “ Fuckaz”, to make sure no-one thinks he’s just finished marking essays, but still can’t quite manage not to sound a bit clever-clever, despite throwing in a few “Believes!” and “Bludclats”***, while the “legendary” Tippa Irie manages to come up with the insightful, “So many things that make me angry, so many things that make me mad, and I want to say-hay!” It’s enough to make you yearn for a bit of Old Testament ire and pleasurably scandalizing slackness from Daddy Freddy and Cutty Ranks.
Right. I’m buggering off again.
*which is that Associates post I’ve been putting off for two years now.
**I’m fully aware that these ideas need heavily refining.
***ahhh, who is not prone to the torments of the inauthentic!