LARS VON TRIER’S 2003 piece of self-imploding agitprop, Dogville, suggested a future for the political film because it took the form of political allegory and gave it an afterlife. The movie continued after it should have ended. It dressed up as allegory and danced through gunfire, rape, and other von Trier-ian delights, confusing the characters’ signifieds until it could no longer be read as allegory, but rather as a hysterical political message posing in the clothes of a dead form. Yet to say that the film is therefore not an allegory because it cannot be read allegorically would be to miss the point.
In the 21st century, the political allegory as we’ve always known it is no longer useful. There isn’t going to be another Animal Farm. The truth was never as simple as that book would have us believe, and besides, we are far past the age of the recognition of the hysterical referent; that notion, which once belonged to the avant-garde, the pop-artists, and the French theorists, has become a fact of reality. You might even say that the dead walk among us, for the signals are present, they are merely choked of all meaning. In art, in media, in fashion, in human communication, style compensates for what the referents can no longer handle.
Electronic music, synth pop, and rave culture has just undergone a similar overtaking of meaning by style in the second Crystal Castles album, known as either Crystal Castles (same title as their first album) or (II). (II) is the sound of the soul rising from the corpse of the signifier amid blasts of static, fuzzed-out bass, melancholy synths, timeless rave/disco style dance beats, and vocalist Alice Glass alternating from shattering the eardrums to soothing them to shattering them again. The cover of the album features a photograph of a girl in a graveyard, and it’s up to the viewer to decide if she lives there or if she is merely a visitor.
Grave utterances are nothing new to electronic music. On the contrary, the “dark side” has longer been a part of boom-boom-bleep culture than have the flashing lights and designer pills of the rave era or the psyched-out ambience of Aphex Twin, et al. Take Kraftwerk’s “Europe Endless” of 1977. Take, well, Brian Eno’s entire musical catalogue: at its most peacefully ambient, it can be Ophelia floating in rose water; at its most destructive, it’s the decadence and misanthropy of hard drug use and shattered glass that came back from Berlin; and, of course, there’s the mysticism and confused consciousness of Remain in Light. More recently, there have been Trent Reznor’s “I hate you, God” temper tantrums and Radiohead’s sardonic “Idiotheque.”
My favorite electronic downers as of late have come from brother and sister Andersson, who together form The Knife. They prefer black Venetian plague masks to their actual faces, and their music reflects the iciness of their Swedish homeland. Their music is made of 80s pop keyboard synths, frozen and crystallized, so they sound utterly de-romanticized; vocalist sister Karin manipulates her voice so that she can sound like a pixie one moment and a demonesque caricature of a patriarch the next. Their songs tend to be about love, life, and sex under Western Capitalism (“Some things I do for money, some things I do for free”). The Knife, along with Karin’s solo project Fever Ray, create a dark sarcasm. They use electronic music for a creepy, sometimes comical effect; nevertheless, it’s an effect that doesn’t leave normal alone, and always suggests alienation through its coldness and its deconstruction of electronic jouissance. Their music may not be political, but it’s certainly ideological.
What are the angry musical youth of the early 21st century to do? Or perhaps the question should be: Are the musical youth even angry? They are uneasy, sure. Terrorism, bad economy, lost faith in power, power that’s lost faith in itself: the conscious young artist with a radical agenda might as well spend the afternoon stoned, listening to Beach House. As Thom Yorke, poet of the hysterical referent, started showing in 2000 (“I woke up sucking a lemon”), you can’t be angry at anything or anyone in particular anymore. The Knife have showed a critical edge, but they exist in the realm of the concept, the theory; their influence on younger groups is dubious for its dead-end seriousness and stylistic closeness to well-established synth/electronic conventions. (I’m not forgetting M.I.A., but after Kala’s almost Pynchon-esque gathering of everything in the world, I don’t think she’s been properly assimilated yet.) How can a lyricist pen a song like, say, anything ever performed by The Clash in their halcyon days, by Minor Threat, or Mission of Burma’s “New Nails” and expect to be taken seriously? They can’t. Political anger has been banned to expressionism.
On (II), the Crystal Castles have wrangled the hysterical referents of the angry song, blended them through an impeccable pop machine, and spat them out with bleeps, blips, and Alice Glass’ occasional scream (if Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill was confronting her abuser, Glass is having one over on hers by playing the masochist). (II) opens up with “Fainting Spells,” which features Glass screaming in the background. There is noise, static, and the occasional dance beat that terminates itself the moment it finds some life. What holds the song together is Ethan Kath’s keyboard that sounds like the creepy fill from a television show or, perhaps more accurately, the music from the dungeon level of a Nintendo game. Next is “Celestica,” a pop song that recalls a Lush song in terms of melody and is like a Kevin Shields-produced track for its soothing, slightly alien music. The two songs back to back—the first showcasing their punk influence, the second showcasing the dream pop—more or less prepare us for the rest of the album, which makes use of electronic genres in the same way lo-fi giants of the 90s (Pavement, GBV) juggled and joked with classic rock.
What makes the Crystal Castles radical is that they take pitch-perfect referents of the past and make them unreadable. This is the sound of the soul leaving the body; everything becomes as one; you can have your anger, your resistance, your good times, and your utopia, but you will have them all a’swirl with one another. And you will like it. “Year of Silence” reduces Ladytron’s style of deadpan consumer seduction to nonsense (I believe that’s the voice of Sigur Ros’ Jonsi being looped). “Baptism” mixes foot-moving rave, almost too classic to be literal, with waves of noise, accompanied by Glass screaming, “This is your baptism!” There is the idea of the musical soul, the night of dancing, leading to rebirth. And there is religion. Though Glass’ tone suggests she’s furious, there is not one moment when she suggests that you should actually stop dancing. A bubblegum-veiled-in-noise cover of Platinum Blonde’s “Not in Love” would have allowed the Castles the perfect platform to be ironic had they not chosen a song that was already aware of its own bitterness. Tongue is in cheek, but tongue is being bitten nonetheless.
“Vietnam” is the clearest case of the innovative referent-fucking on the record. Consider the name of the song. In the Western consciousness, it was the first fashionably unpopular war in American history, and it’s also the name of a country. The song itself is dance pop, the sort of dreamy booty-shaker that could work in either a lounge or a club. As with the rest of the album, however, it’s just stilted enough to keep it off the pop charts. So is the title of the song a joke, a silly name? “Vietnam” as a word holds too much weight to throw it off during an afternoon of drinking. Though at closer listen, there is something vaguely “Oriental” about the chiming hook. And that vibrating, fuzzy bass: are those helicopters? Like von Trier’s Dogville, “Vietnam” uses a politicized form, a politicized title, and yet it’s completely silent in its confusion. One leaves Dogville feeling a political message, but in no way able to repeat it. The Shieldsian vocal swirl of the aforementioned Castles song puts Yorke’s lemon in Glass’ mouth, but whereas Radiohead would have exploited the political shell (the word, the phrase, the sentiment) to prove its emptiness, Crystal Castles fills those shells with flashing lights and clouds of ecstasy.
And yes, the Crystal Castles second LP is good. The catchy songs are catchy. The loud songs are short and abrasive, and they warrant muddled shout-alongs (“Doe Deer”). When Kath says dance, there’s little choice in the matter. When he says chill (“Violent Dreams”), there’s a strangeness to the music, a Human League-meets- Blade Runner Vangelis alienation that never lets you pull away. There is not one misstep on (II), and it even makes much of a so-far exciting year in music seem boring by comparison. In “Losing My Edge,” 2002, a paranoid LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy half-ironically complained about hearing the footsteps of the kids on the decks. Now would be a good time for him to listen a little closer: Alice Glass has only just turned 21.
David Nelson Pollock is Culture Editor of The Ithaca Post and co-founding editor of Essays & Fictions.