As impressive as the work is overall, it may be only compelling and enjoyable for the trio’s existing fans.
When you take them as individuals fronting their distinct projects, Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle), Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio) and rapper Adam “Doseone” Drucker force you to strip away expectations with each release. Well, not all expectations. You can anticipate something decidedly weird and genre-pushing, something that advances the borders of the sonic territories they’ve already conquered. Take them as a group, and you know any world such a trinity could create will invert, defy and eviscerate whatever vestigial preconceptions you have.
The trio has described their association as a partnership and the eight-years-in-the-making album confirms as much. Nevermen holds to the ideal of eschewing ego and frontman supremacy. There is no leader, no scene-stealer among the three. They trade off lines and harmonize refrains, chant verses and create a foundation of alternating vocal cacophony and synergy. They even duel over individual words in “Non Babylon.” More often than not, the actual lyrics are obfuscated as the vocalists blend their distinctive acumens into an aural collage. At times, as in opening track “Dark Ear,” they sound like an unnerving Greek chorus, or a batch of witches mixing up a brew in a cauldron. Even the most hardcore Patton, Adebimpe and Doseone fans will frequently be baffled as to whose voice is handling which part. Remarkably, the vocals rarely trip over themselves. Rather than competing for dominance, the voices remain complementary even in the most frenzied pandemonium. The fact that Patton’s foaming snarl and guttural bellow meshes with Adebimpe’s silken crooning and Doseone’s live wire rhyme-spitting is in and of itself commendable.
Song structure is likewise largely forsaken. Melodies and rhythms are established just long enough to shock you when the rug is pulled out from underneath your feet. You’ll become comfortable in a vocal hook or a get in sync with a hip-hop beat, only to be sideswiped with some abrupt deviation. Similarly, genres are broken apart and stitched back together in haphazard ways. Electro, rap, noise rock, soul, indie pop and free jazz cannibalize one another. Aside from obvious instrumentation, the music often sounds like it’s made from vocal embellishments, the percussion and synth bleeps are the results of layered or digitally tweaked beatboxing. All in all, it makes for a mercurial experience, like watching watercolors pool into each other.
The aforementioned “Dark Ear” kicks off the record on a groovy and pummeling note. Fostering an avant-garde approach, the song makes it clear the album is going to be steeped in texture and mood more so than melody. While “Dark Ear” clears the path, second track “Treat Em Right” is where Nevermen takes off. Spacey and funky with a mantra of “Dreaming like a prostitute,” it spellbinds. “Wrong Animal Right Trap” drags you deeper down the rabbit hole, its bass pulsating with an industrial-leaning frantic drum pattern. Adebimpe spouts a refrain of “This will simply not work like barbed wire on pollen,” a sample of the record’s lyrical approach of turning nonsensical phrases into vivid imagery.
“Tough Towns,” wisely chosen as the album’s lead single, is the most accessible tune (though “Mr. Mistake” rivals it with its bevy of hooks and jaunty rhythms). It also has the most recognizable theme; that suffocating feeling that can come with never leaving one’s hometown. Opening with snapping fingers and ominous vibes, the verses are largely hushed yet pregnant with dread. It grows in grandeur in the mid-tempo yet expansive chorus. “All prizes are/ Manufactured in Battle Creek, Michigan,” the trio sings in the genuinely catchy refrain, Patton getting the lion’s share of focus here. In the outro, the trio frantically spits out the thesis statement of “It’s where everything you never want/ Keeps coming from.” It’s followed by the most TV on the Radio-sounding tune, “Hate On.” With some deranged doo wop, spectral cooing from Adebimpe, twinkling chimes and pipe-clanging percussion, it’s more meandering soundscape than song. Think of it as a dispatch from some dying star.
The album takes on a meta bent in its second half. Though it starts placidly, “Shellshot” explodes into pure mania, projecting a lyrical concern of paranoia, fame obsession and social media addiction. It pokes fun at self-important popstars, the degree of its insightfulness negligible in its scathing hook “I wanna shoot you/ Till the album drops.” In “Non Babylon,” the artists reference themselves and lay out the project’s concept, albeit in a way that’s perhaps a bit too on the nose. Directly addressing a frontman in accusatory and derisive fashion, an initially bubbly melody morphs into a crashing avalanche helmed by a rabid Patton. It almost would have made a more thematically consistent album closer than successor “Fame II the Wreckoning.” The proper closer drifts along and has a comforting, uplifting sensibility that feels unearned and out of step with the rest of the work. Despite its tacked-on feel, it’s a pleasant number on its own.
As impressive as the work is overall, it may be only compelling and enjoyable for the trio’s existing fans. It is a dense creation and demands committed attention while listening. Your average listeners aren’t likely to dedicate themselves to pouring over the record to discern its rewards. But then, it’s not like Patton, Adebimpe, and Doseone care much for mass consumption. It’s a worthy addition to the trio’s individual oeuvres, something their fans will dig, and really, it’s hard to imagine Nevermen was shooting for anything more.