Thursday, March 31, 2016

Review of Iggy Pop, Post-Pop Depression

Iggy Pop, almost out of the blue, announced just a couple months ago that a new album was on the way, Post-Pop Depression.  Having worked with the re-formed Stooges for a number of years, then with the second version of a re-re-formed Stooges with James Williamson (after the death of original guitarist Ron Asheton) — now, with the death of drummer Scott Asheton and some apparent dissension between Pop and Williamson at the time of the latter’s Re-Licked album (2014) — it appears that the Stooges and the Stooges-related part of Iggy’s career, sadly, is over.  If they wanted, in order to continue the revisiting of these various permutations of the Stooges, Pop and Williamson could perhaps still do some kind of follow-on from their Kill City album (1975/1977), mimicking the trajectory of Stooges → Iggy and the Stooges → Iggy Pop & James Williamson.  But, again, it seems most unlikely.  Instead, Iggy has for now found a new guitarist and collaborator, Josh Homme, and we have Post-Pop Depression.  But this also is a very good thing.

Much has already been said about the resemblance between this album’s sound and Iggy’s first two immediate post-post-Stooges albums The Idiot and Lust for Life (both 1977).  It is true that there is a kind of self-conscious hieing to that musical period for him here, but it’s also different and its own thing.  Homme’s guitar is just a little heavier, and while the decadent mood of those albums is present, there is also a truer sense of impending death.  It’s easy to muse about death when you’re still a young man or woman; it is different when you are older or old and it’s that much closer.  Here, Iggy is wrestling with mortality and perceived failure (e.g. “if I have outlived my use,” in “American Valhalla”).  The kind of feelings that he locates on this album — in, for example, and especially, “Gardenia,” “American Valhalla,” and “Chocolate Drops” — are poignant, the sort of feelings any artist who is lucky enough to get this far must ineluctably wrestle with.

What is this Post-Pop Depression?  The title works in different ways.  It is “post-pop” in the sense of being past the time of widespread success in a popular sense.  Thus, this album is made without much hope for mainstream rewards (indeed, it is released independently, apparently self-funded, on the Loma Vista and Rekords Rekords labels). But since Iggy is Pop, there’s also a sense of losing oneself, or at least of shedding one’s public image, and trying for some sort of “real” connection, despite the near futility of it.  Or, thinking of death, it might even mean contemplating losing one’s self, full stop.  A feeling of depression might indeed result from any of these.

The lead-off track is “Break into Your Heart,” a mid-tempo tune that vaguely recalls both Iggy’s Berlin albums and Bowie’s Scary Monsters sound. Lyrically, it is about breaking down interpersonal barriers and the possibility of intimacy (or lack thereof). Yet, the other person seems always out of reach, buried under “Mountains capped with snow.”  As the phrase “break in” implies, the attempt at closeness seems not to be reciprocated, and the theme of alienation and estrangement is foregrounded.  On most of the album, this alienation is from mainstream society at large, but here and in the next song, it is expressed in regard to personal relationships.

“Gardenia,” the first “single” from the album (are there such things as singles anymore? I guess in download or YouTube form now?), reads as a tribute to Billie Holiday.  The title itself is a dead giveaway (along with the line “A gardenia in your hair”), but there are further clues: “Black Goddess in a shabby raincoat”; “I saw a dangerous habit / When she turned the lights on”; etc.  Other lines, however, suggest a more personal relationship than the Iggy-speaker could ever really have with such a long-dead muse: “Much taller and stronger than me” (perhaps indicating Pop’s real-life wife); “We lay in the darkness”; “America’s greatest living poet / Was ogling you all night.”  Here Pop himself is surely, in the song anyway, “America’s greatest living poet.” It’s a boast perhaps, but song lyrics aside, Iggy has written and published poetry per se, some being included in his 1982 autobiography, I Need More. Ultimately, “Gardenia” is an ambiguous figure, an amalgam of Holiday and others, or perhaps as Iggy sings, “A forbidden dream.”  Musically, the song epitomizes the angular, funky, post-punk sound of the album, with Homme’s guitar emphasizing the backbeat in the verses and adding layers in a higher register in the bridge.  Iggy’s singing on the chorus (“All I wanna do is tell / Gardenia what to do tonight”) is both subtle and lush at the same time, and, speaking subjectively, the song is real catchy.

The album’s theme of mortality might best be summed up in “American Valhalla.”  “Where is American Valhalla? / Death is the pill that’s hard to swallow,” Iggy avers, after stating that his life hasn’t been easy and many of his accomplishments have seemingly gone unnoticed.  Surely there must be some reward, somewhere?  Not for him a Christian Heaven, but an American Valhalla, abode of mythic heroes, among whom Iggy Pop surely deserves a place after death?

The subject matter of “In the Lobby” reminds me a bit of “Some Weird Sin” (from Lust for Life), the attraction to deviant or dangerous experience (both songs refer to being on “the edge”).  In the earlier song, the danger or deviance was needed “Just to relax me,” but here it is accompanied by fear and anxiety instead: “An ocean of bodies / And then there’s me / And I hope I’m not losing my life tonight.”  A further difference is that in “Some Weird Sin” the weird sin was something actively sought, whereas now it is more of an involuntary compulsion: “I followed my shadow and it led me here.”  The backing track is often heavily syncopated in its rhythm, bass-driven, and in the third verse Iggy erupts into a wonderful scream, reminiscent of the vocal punctuations on “Run Like a Villain” from the 1982 Zombie Birdhouse album, and many other Iggy performances.

One of the best tracks here, in my opinion, is “Sunday,” another funky number, accompanied by some steady, loping tom-tom playing by the drummer, Matt Helders. At times, I hear shades of early Talking Heads in this, or in a broader sense Bowie’s band on the “Fame” single.  The theme is nothing new — the rat race of work and job — but Iggy’s lyrical treatment brings to it a sense of psychic exhaustion, turning it into an affect-centered meditation (“I’m a wreck / What did you expect?”; “I crawl for Sunday / When I don’t have to move”) rather than a polemic. The backing vocals, which repeat the mantra “Always ready, always steady,” are a great finishing touch.  But then there’s another finishing touch, a long orchestral fadeout, heavy on the strings, tugging at the heart-strings.

“Vulture” is a mostly acoustic interlude, a departure from the sound of the rest of the album, but still enervated, and following on from “Sunday,” a further attack on capitalism.  It doesn’t quite have the same appeal as the rest of the album, but it does have a pleasantly harsh electric guitar solo by Homme and a loud, ringing chorus—there are bells (or at least, chimes).  It grows on you with repeated listenings, and Iggy’s Eastern-inflected vocal flourish at the end is interesting.

“German Days” quickly gets us back on track.  It is perhaps the song that in places sounds most like Homme’s own band (Queens of the Stone Age) and, appropriately given its title, like decadent operatic-cum-cabaret 1920s German music, Kurt Weill perhaps, or even recent Scott Walker (who I know is not German).  Jon Pareles in the New York Times recently suggested that “German Days” references Iggy’s time in Berlin with Bowie, and perhaps it does, but it seems to me, even more so, that it’s going for that Weimar thing.  Yeah, it mentions Berlin, but really nothing particular to that city in the 70s—it’s more about a broader mood than any specific autobiographical detail.

“Chocolate Drops” is a stand-out, piano- and chime-driven and lyrically raw and open.  “When it’s painful to express the things you feel / It hurts to share because they’re bare and real,” sings Iggy.  Homme’s primary guitar on this one is the lap steel.  I would almost say it’s a nice song, but the mood is tinged with melancholy, nice in a bittersweet way.

“Paraguay” encapsulates that desire to leave, to disappear to somewhere beyond the American . . . greed? shallowness? competition?  But it is also in conjunction with a kind of self-effacement, even self-pity (“I’m going where sore losers go”), which we’ve all felt at some time or another.  All this is further juxtaposed (both musically and lyrically) with the heavy, deliberately plodding guitar riff that comes in toward the end, over which Iggy lets loose a rant about the straitjacket that for him is contemporary Western capitalist society, its soul-destroying emptiness, its paranoia, its neuroses — “. . .take your motherfucking laptop / And just shove it into your goddam foul mouth / . . . . And I hope you shit it out. . .”  It’s a great moment.

I think that as an album Post-Pop Depression is important for a number of reasons.  First of all, it is the best Iggy solo album in a number of years, and in some ways, for me anyway, even more compelling than the last Stooges album (Ready to Die [2013]) — and I say this not altogether comfortably as a Stooges fan.  While that album had many great, signature James Williamson licks, the presence of Scott Asheton on drums, Steve Mackay on tenor sax, and some really good songs, in places Iggy was lost lyrically speaking (e.g. “DD’s”).  Iggy’s recent French albums have some very nice stuff on them (in a vastly different way, obviously), and his voice is just always great to hear.  But musically, lyrically, and ineffably, Post-Pop Depression just has “it.”

Iggy here has been able to recapture something, something in which everything comes together for him, where he is in the zeitgeist so to speak without necessarily trying, where there’s a poetry, a musical quality, and an attitude that just works, essentially all the time throughout.  As he has queried/screamed in many of his performances, especially going back to the Stooges days, “Can you feel it?”  And though the Post-Pop Depression album title and even often the tone of the songs emphasizes depression and impending death (though when is death ever not impending, aside from when you’re a baby or young child?), there is still an uplifting feeling, the vibe of an artistic high note.  With any artist, that feeling waxes and wanes.  Here it waxes big-time.  Without being hyperbolic, again, this really is one of Iggy’s best albums.  Let’s hope, despite his pronouncements, he has a few more in him.

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