It’s a private, untested theory of mine that weird nerds make the best pop stars. An eccentric guy wiggling in an oversized suit might be party euthanasia in any other context but on stage he’s David Byrne. The strange, the nervous, and the socially dire (I’m not using first person pronouns here but it should be implied) are primed for the limelight because they have to be actors. There’s a tension between who they are and what they’re doing, and that tension can be extraordinarily productive. The Chap certainly look that part, posing for press photos as a suburban Kraftwerk nightmare or five moderately scary art teachers on a weekday bender.
And over four and a half albums and one hilariously premature best of compilation titled We Are The Best, The Chap have built this weirdo city on not rock and roll exactly but a deranged isotope of it. It’s a place where the pieties and consoling nonsense of 21st century culture go to die. Take “Well Done You” off of their most recent album Well Done Europe, which rattles off a bunch of middle management backslaps, “You’ve really gone that extra mile/ You’ve got your head screwed on right,” before washing it all down with a deliciously brazen and nonsensical Springsteen rip: “Even if we’re just dancing in the dark.” The Talking Heads also had a critique of suburban proprietary values in their inside pocket (or else I have no idea why they wrote so many songs about houses) but Byrne never found it necessary to be anything but a surrealist. In an unlikely alchemy The Chap’s savage absurdity sometimes results in genuine empathy. Underdog anthem “We Work In Bars” pairs a sweetly melodic riff with the sort of narrative struggling musicians build to keep themselves afloat. And “Wuss Wuss” on 2008’s Mega Breakfast weaves the repeated plea “Where is my soul?” into a chorus of “Nineteen years in the business/ Nineteen years, dog without a bone.” If you ironize a sentiment an even number of times, that’s real feeling.
But The Chap are beginning to know the comedian’s problem: being too funny to take seriously. “Obviously” on Well Done Europe delivers a parched, deadpan namedrop “Oh Diego, I’m so sorry/ Richard Dawkins, Peter Lorre” through a pointillist matrix of bass synth and guitar, a characteristically arch gesture from The Chap but one immediately complicated by a choral refrain of “Is anybody still out there?” It’s this lack of sincere response, a possible side effect of being marooned in the 7.7 to 8.3 critical zone, that seems to motivate The Chap’s new project, the allegedly “non-ironic” class five comedown album We Are Nobody, which trades thick irony and posturing for the post-millennial holy trinity of disconnection, alienation, and insecurity and their signature bizarre animal themed album covers for what I can only describe as a melancholy ghost condom.
Nobody preserves The Chap’s laser-guided sense of composition, a precision that speaks of classical training, but rounds out the sound to a late aughts electro pop baseline. Opener “Rhythm King” makes clear that we’re in a different space, the lucid diction and polite synths getting about halfway from the art schools of London to the nice young man pop of Gothenburg. But the bottom of the North Sea was never a fertile music scene. The following “What Did We Do?” locks into a similar groove with a chorus that doesn’t make eye contact: “Writing’s for cowards, talking’s for men/ Cowards write songs and never do what must be done.” The Chap’s former indulgent sarcasm is now just filigree; the self-awareness of the sentiment doesn’t seem to want to get in the way of them really meaning it.
The first half of the album slips away like this, without putting in hooks. It seems to take as its guiding star Peter Bjorn and John or even, god help us, Royskopp. And while The Chap are working through their own problems I’m having a fanboy one, because it’s a crushing disappointment to see a band so sharp and smart retreat to where these Scandinavians were five years ago. The title track does what it says on the tin, repeating “I am you/ You are we/ We are nobody,” but this kind of internet age facelessness has been cultural bedrock since at least Radiohead. I would have been a happier camper if The Chap had taken it as a starting point and built something acerbic and weird on top of it. The album does perk up a little in its second half. “Running With Me” starts bass-forward and slides easily into a quiet stunner of a chorus, spacing out its sonics towards the end. Also, the noisy clatter and upper atmosphere female vocals make “Hands Free” a pretty good Deerhoof song.
But what were The Chap expecting? That they could ruthlessly mock pop culture and its consumers and we would all love them for it? The mischievous, prankster status that they seem to want to jettison is actually a tacit contract. Mainstream music press deem them art school weirdos and then they attract the cult attention visionary weirdos are always attracting. I want them to sell out. I want them to sell out and I want everybody to buy in. But I want them to peddle their talents instead of an electro pop autopilot. If nothing else, We Are Nobody is an invitation to dig into their back catalog and their fantastic best of compilation We Are The Best, which shouldn’t even work, drawing as it does on only eight years and four albums. Unless of course this is all a put on, a big, welcome joke, and they’re just a couple steps above me on an irony ziggurat I’m too out of shape to climb.
2.5 / 5 bars