An Object for All Ages

I don’t know enough semiotics or Warhol to risk challenging the casual sanctimony No Age’s An Object is drawing for its title - but take comfort in a suspicion that those behind the piqué know even less, or otherwise don’t realize they’re wasting their time. Four albums of lyrical evidence affirms by now that Randy Randall and Dean Spunt don’t truck their avant pretentions with the literary. Unless of course riddling your art project with cliche is a deliberate meta-commentary on material objectification (and who knows, in some quarters that shit flies), “Who do you think you are? / Your life is set in stone / no room for adjustment / no room for growth” won’t exactly agitate John Zerzan into protest - or, hell, even Greil Marcus.
Myself, I approached this album as I have their earlier stuff: ignore the meticulously stylized cover art, the clever and obfuscatory title, and the lauding press that reinforce this weirdo broken promise of punk’s only self-conciously academic duo - or academic anything (see: Greg Graffin). In other words: I approached this music by actually approaching the music - which by now exists at the same kind of ironic remove from its material self as its material self is allegedly from, uh, late capitalism’s cultural constructs, man. Never mind that Warner Music Group owns 49% of Sub Pop.
Anyway: aural immersion. In defense of this great record, I want badly to depart from critical consensus and say it isn’t super duper weird. But it is. And part of that weirdness is owed to a demonstrable failure to meet expectations: the expectations fans, and even skeptical observers developed after hearing an obvious trajectory from Weirdo Ripper’s dissonant megaphone ambience to Noun’s flirtations with The Real to, finally, the pastiche in-betweeness of soundscape and garage junk riffage. In other words, I think most of us wanted… songs. And not just any kinds of songs - but songs with, uh, melodies.
Before I go any further, I need to stop and ask: are we insane? In what possible universe is it well reasoned to expect a pop move from - let’s reiterate - a punk rock (?) duo (!) with art school sensibilities (:..&) whose latest forays find them curating exhibits in Italy with derivative goofs like Doug Aitken and Chloe Sevigny? I guess a universe in which International Superhits! passes for high irony - and yet is accidentally the most and least ironic thing the genre has ever produced, lumped inconveniently at the doorstep of this century’s scene like heap of wet dookie everyone has to step in. And also one in which Warner Music Group owns 49% of Sub Pop - but I repeat myself.
Luckily for us purists Randall’s and Spunt’s proclivity for not reading means they don’t pretend to bother with contract minutiae. So An Object moves unpop as it drags Everything In Between outward into Nouns and Weirdo territory. Light on melody, heavy in atmosphere, plus crank and fuzz. Also: the existential wails from their debut return, but eskewed are the vocal distortions that once masked what could have been and probably was melodrama. I’m guessing about the melodrama because: a dozen Weirdo Ripper spins have yielded no repeatable lyrics and, more importantly, these two sobs have always cross-pollinated a certain east coast emo sensibility with whatever admixture of LA was already tangled unwashed in their hair.
And in the academic spirit of bludgeoning your poor skull with the same point until I kill you: it’s this witless and doleful writing that’s fissured the No Age signifier from what’s actually signified (or, cynically, what Warner Music has branded). But, maaaan, is it appropriate in An Object.
Spunt howls about the usual shit: girl problems, alienation on the road, limp metaphors for materialism-as-life-as-art-as-nothing, and on. But shifting, grinding, overpowering, gurgling and sputtering dead is a drum/guitar interplay that achieves a singular and genius kind of industrial apogee. Think a Sonic Youth that never realized its shortlived Beat seafoam sound, and instead cut a record called Washing Machinquaye in 1995. Now imagine the machines want to kill you instead of fuck you.
“Defector/ed” churns pistons and chugs ugly smog until a panicked bird starts to die at 1:11 - or like Dan Weiss says, it’s a hamster wheel or pencil sharpener. Either works. “An Impression” switches bands quickly on a dial radio before settling on a Baroque station in the low 80s. “Running from A-Go-Go” is a real old pickup ruck sputtering down a country road - probably the same vehicle that “life opens up like” later in “Commerce, Comment, Commerce.” “A Ceiling Dreams of a Floor” spits coins, then lumbers like a behemoth Something while Spunt asks how you’ll “hold into your body” - a song I’d christen the best anti-banker screed if the antagonist weren’t so deliberately vague. And “C’mon, Stummung” outdoes its riff twin “Fever Dreaming” by recalibrating the AOL dial tone to blare like a siren warning. It’s the best riff I’ve ever heard.
Spunt doesn’t get much of a word in, often muted by the drone of his own machinery. In this way the melodrama works: it doesn’t matter what he’s saying because you won’t hear it anyway, and he’s finally whining about the right stuff in the right setting - which you could argue means that nothing here is melodramatic.
And as far as settings go, this one’s pretty fucked up. It’s what Roger Water’s would’ve done with Welcome to the Machine if he had the magic hand to match his hairbrain theorizing. No coexisting with the material, no mastering it, no defeating it, no trancendance. Just living it. Spunt begs for a way out over and over in “My Hands, Birch, and Steel.” He insists pathetically on the record’s best love song that he won’t be “her generator” - without the requesite irony to let us know he’s in on the joke (but of course he is, and that’s the best irony of all). An Object ends with “life opens up like the back of a pickup truck / there is no here when there is no where / you can fill me up so I won’t get stuck.” The song drives on for another two and a half minutes - until the engine runs out of gas and grinds to a dead halt.
And with that… mechanical transference. Spunt and Randall and their instruments and the listener and every other noun in between are overwhelmed by the material and reduced to the state of an object - in both content and form. Huh, okay. Maybe these guys read books after all.