Sunday, November 17, 2013

album review: 'matangi' by m.i.a.

A couple of months ago, I did a retrospective review of Shaking The Habitual by The Knife, a critically acclaimed album that I didn't quite like as much as all of the critics did. And there's a reason for that: that album, despite some very solid ambient pieces I found quite stirring, the lyrics and delivery had the subtlety of a brick through a window. But more importantly, The Knife were trying to be very political on that album, and they were using their anti-commercialism in instrumentation to emphasize how difficult it would be for the average listener to accept the paradigm changes - but at the same time, it proved to be a fatal flaw, because by doing so, they killed any populist appeal they might be able to drum up. In the heavy-handed message-mongering of the album, The Knife utilized their instrumentation to hammer home their point... a point that ultimately turned out to be bog-standard left-wing criticisms of family values, environmentalism, and offered nothing new to the cultural discourse. And by killing any broader appeal, they only embodied the worst straits of snobbish artists with a message and proved more than a little insufferable for me, even though I agreed with their message.

See, here's the thing about political music: while politics offer a whole load of fascinating and captivating topics, it's hard to make political music well. It's a balancing act between the intellectual nuance that needs to be brought to be taken seriously and the populist appeal to speak to a broader audience. And believe me, it's hard to maintain that balance and it's why I maintain one of the best political bands was the anarcho-punk collective Chumbawamba (most commonly known for their one hit 'Tubthumping'), mostly because they balanced hard-edged and smartly articulated political messages with simple melodies, a lot of wit, great hooks, and a fundamental spirit of 'we're all in this together'. Even if you disagreed with the politics - which at points I did - I don't think you can argue that the delivery of their message was ingenious.

And yet, I had to admit I was more than a little skeptical when I heard about MIA and her new album Matangi. She had made no secret of the fact that she was a political artist with a message and that she had solid pop sensibilities. I mean, the critics sure seemed to think so, given the rave reviews her albums have tended to receive - and yet, until I reviewed this album, I had no interest whatsoever in MIA. I had heard 'Paper Planes' and 'Boyz' and thought, 'Nope, I don't need any of that, those songs are vapid and incredibly obnoxious'. But I figured, hey, I was probably being unfair and there isn't much coming out in the end of this month anyways, so I decided to go through MIA's discography and give her a fair chance. And...

Eh, maybe it's not for me. Look, I mostly respect what MIA is trying to do and I can't deny she's got a gift for genre-hopping sound collages that will be unlike anything you'll ever hear, but it's not clicking for me and I know exactly why. Part of it is her voice - it's not my thing, I can accept that - part of it is her delivery - it never feels raw enough or emotionally drawn enough to really get to me - and part of it is the fact the lyrics just don't work nearly as well as they should. Yes, they're descriptive, yes, they fit the tone of the instrumentation and production - but there's no nuance here and little populism. It's unbridled and incredibly straightforward and yet lacks the energy to justify the simplicity of the approach - almost to the point of propagandizing the far-left attitudes she sings about. And while the emotional response can be compelling (when it's even there), to me it feels shallow, a stark painting that might put forward an interesting image, but lacking in dimension.

And maybe that's enough - her first album Arular was very much in this vein, and while it wasn't bad, its lack of cohesiveness did show (then again, that did seem like the point). Her second album Kala was a bit better, with 'Jimmy' being the standout track for actually having a melody worth remembering, but with the inclusion of more electronica to create a more cohesive sound, it felt like some of the texture and rawness that characterized Arular was jettisoned, which wasn't a good sign. But then again, the loss of texture should have been the last thing I was concerned about with MAYA, which seemed to be M.I.A.'s attempt to fuse internet-inspired industrial music with her usual schtick, and all it ended up doing was giving me a massive migraine. Not only did the lyrics prove M.I.A. had nothing interesting or all that insightful to say about the Internet, the instrumentation lost any hint of cohesion and only amplified the klaxon-esque howling that has always been the worst part of M.I.A.'s instrumentation. I could imagine industrial musicians like Trent Reznor coming to this album and muttering, 'Who the hell is responsible for this messy, incoherent, poorly mixed and painfully shallow nonsense?' To be fair, it was probably the first album that came remotely close to backing M.I.A.'s continued assertions she was inspired by hardcore punk, and songs like 'Meds and Feds' were easily the best on the record, but that's not saying much. And really, after MAYA, I was a little optimistic - I mean, it can't get worse than that, can it?

Well, it wasn't worse than MAYA - in fact, it was better than I expected. Now that's not saying this album is anywhere close to great or something that I like, but it's not precisely bad in the way her last album was. At the same time, though, it's the sort of work that definitely feels like it was a troubled production (for M.I.A.'s traditional lack of cohesion on her records, that's saying something), and yet somehow it's probably M.I.A.'s least interesting album to date, at least to me.

Let's start with instrumentation and production, which is thankfully nowhere near as bad as the last album, but really, that's not saying much. It has the distinctive M.I.A. sound (to the point where the title track bites from 'Boyz' pretty hard), and if you're a fan of that sound - a lot of Asian and Indian rhythms crossed with trap-inspired instrumentation, electronica, and a whole load of extraneous sound effects - you'll probably like the sounds on this record, which is a more relaxed and less frenetic version of it. But unlike Arular or Kala, the mess seems a lot less tolerable this time around, and that can be linked to two things: the fact that the production seems a whole lot slicker; and the fact that the slower tempo overall only highlights the cracks even further. It doesn't help matters that most of the songs drag painfully, even with M.i.A. throwing as many music ideas and samples at the tracks as she possibly can. Now she sometimes gets results - the heavy sample from The Weeknd on 'Exodus' creates a good vibe - but then she goes and beats the idea into the ground with a follow-up album closer 'Sexodus', which is a slightly rewritten version of the song that just feels like excess bloat. And frankly, I have a hard time buying that M.I.A. considers this album 'upbeat', because in comparison with the motley explosions of her first two albums, Matangi feels rather sluggish.

Of course, some of that has to do with M.I.A. herself, and here's where I've finally figured out my big issue with her delivery: she never sounds like she cares or is invested in her material. She might have personal causes that mean a great deal to her, but her deadpan, her occasional lack of energy, and her preference for vocal effects all serve to strip away any sort of feeling that she gives a damn about any of the things she's rapping about - and while it might be fine for dead-eyed party music and dance jams, it really doesn't work when she's trying to make political statements or come across as having the slightest bit of punk attitude. It also seriously dampens her populism - if she never sounds like she cares (and given that in so many songs she's bragging, it really comes off as obnoxious), why should we care? And it's all the more problematic on Matangi, because with the slower tempo, M.I.A. sounds like she cares even less, and considering she's never been a great rapper (her rhyming on this album alternates between being decent and embarrassing), it exposes her flaws here even further - and the scary fact is that might be partially intentional. 

This is where I will give M.I.A. the one very positive compliment she deserves with this album - the comparison that she's trying to draw between herself and the Hindu goddess Matangi is kind of inspired and does make a lot of sense. Matangi is the goddess of music, knowledge, and the arts, and has been described as an outcast - and really, the way M.I.A. has presented herself over the past decade does fit with that image and as I said, it makes too much sense... and it's a complete shame that M.I.A. does precisely squat with this. She references the goddess and karma throughout the album, but she never does anything all that far outside of her typical purview: bragging, talking about being a bad girl, and overwrought and 'controversial' political statements that are so shallow and devoid of nuance that they might as well be talking points. And at this point, I can't help but feel like M.I.A. is treading old ground, and not in a particularly interesting or compelling way. That's not counting songs like 'aTENTion', a song reportedly written with the aid of Julian Assange of Wikileaks who, to quote M.I.A. directly, "came into the studio and took my computer and basically decrypted the whole of the internet and downloaded every word in the whole of the language that contained the word 'tent' in it." Really. 

And this brings to the forefront my biggest issue with M.I.A. as an artist and with this album specifically: she clearly thinks that everything she writes is important and deep and incredibly meaningful, when the nuance and depth and emotional resonance has never materialized. Now to be fair, this myopic conceit can occasionally work and bring some bratty attitude to shallow pop songs and give them some unique character. But if she's going to try and make statements about spirituality or politics or technology, she comes across as hopelessly out of her depth. She's enamoured with the concepts, but the understanding behind those concepts just isn't there, or at least isn't articulated as if she understands them. And her usage of pop culture references at this point just comes across as desperate, particularly 'Y.A.L.A', a surface-level refutation of Drake's insufferable song from eighteen months ago. She compares herself to Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider games and movie - which if you're familiar with video games at all, you'd realize that's not a positive comparison in the slightest! Or let's frame this another way: in 'Bring The Noise', one of the few upbeat songs on the album, M.I.A. brags about her art showing up in search results on Bing. I shouldn't even have to describe how poor of a reference that is.

Look, let's wrap this up: M.I.A.'s Matangi might not be as bad as MAYA, but it's another frustrating shallow album from an artist who I'm starting to think is stagnating artistically. I'll give her credit for going towards the spirituality angle with a little more knowledge than Katy Perry did, but she fails harder here because it's not as if her results are any better. Like Katy Perry, M.I.A. is better making shallow pop songs than statements with any sort of importance or depth, and believe it or not, that's not so much a critique as pointing out where her strengths are. As for this album, it's a 5/10 from me, and not a recommendation. 

And look, I get that M.I.A.'s music is definitely not marketed at me and might have greater cultural relevance and resonance for different demographics, so take all of what I'm saying with a grain of salt. But I can't help but feel that said demographics deserve better.

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