A deeply-layered, opaque album.
Fucking Bon Iver. Now that the pastiest hipster on earth has made an overtly hip-hop-influenced album in the form of 22, A Million, the floodgates have opened and every other bearded white dude with a laptop is gonna start doing it now. This is fine in theory. Lord knows guys like Justin Vernon whimpering emo acoustic songs they wrote while hunkered down in a remote cabin had gotten real old a long time ago; better they experiment with new forms. But if they do it like Vernon—namely coming to the mistaken conclusion that trendy-sounding glitchy beats and, admittedly, creative use of AutoTune make an acceptable substitute for, you know, songwriting—it will be bad news all around. If singer-songwriters are going to start dealing in drum machines and dancey synths more often than folksy acoustic guitars, they need to learn to integrate those modern elements into their songwriting approach, not the other way around.
Enter Kurt Wagner. To be sure, Wagner is not some young, fickle, trend-chasing hipster. He’s a wizened 58-years old, and he’s been making lauded, genre-bending records as Lambchop since the dawn of ‘90s, in the process establishing himself as a revered songwriting maverick. So when he releases an album like FLOTUS—Lambchop’s 12th—one that sounds at first blush like it’s constructed mostly based on hip-hop and EDM-oriented atmospherics at the expense of the ambitious songwriting and lyrical witticisms he’s known for—it’s only fair he be given the benefit of the doubt. Do that, and multiple rounds of careful listening reveal a record of great beauty and almost impossibly subtle artistry. So subtle, in fact, that listeners shouldn’t be blamed if they overlook some of it.
FLOTUS—a conveniently familiar acronym for For Love Often Turns Us Still—is indeed a deeply-layered, opaque album, even though its arrangements aren’t especially dense. In fact, most of the album’s songs are impressively minimalist, built off little more than stuttering, muted electronic drum loops and lilting piano, with unobtrusive, wafting synths and gentle guitar occasionally filling in the gaps in the sound when needed. Thus, by far FLOTUS’s most distinctive musical feature is Wagner’s vocals, which he mostly performs with the robotic-sounding aid of vocoder. This disguises his timid-sounding croak to the point that his voice sits more like just another instrument in the mix. In fact, many of the album’s vocal melodies are not traditionally sung, but chopped-up and reassembled cadences processed to the point that the words are no longer recognizable as they morph into purely melodic or textural elements. This only enhances the impact of the rare occasions when Wagner’s voice is dry—most notably on the parable-like “Writer,” the album’s most accessible song, thanks to a nearly danceable synth motif and a spindly acoustic guitar riff.
The vocoder may be off-putting to some of Wagner’s more conservative fans—Lambchop still gets labeled as “alt-country” occasionally for some inexplicable reason—but it works well both in the context of the band’s entire body of work and of the album itself. Wagner has always explored musical artifice to some extent—hence his forays into semi-ironic Sinatra-like crooning and Vegas lounge music (that side of Wagner even surfaces on FLOTUS for a few fleeting moments during “The Hustle” and “Relatives #2”). The vocoder is just modernized version of that approach. And it’s especially appropriate on an album wherein the hooks often seem to be deliberately buried or obscured.
But they’re there. They’re just constructed out of electronic collages rather than strumming and singing. Some, like the friendly, squeaky ascending piano/synth line on “NIV” and the tentatively party-starting “I talk too much” refrain of the superb “JFK,” are more obvious. Others are built off fleeting, overlapping vocal snippets and synths and take more effort to parse. Even if those hooks are undeniably well-constructed once identified, they’re so subdued that if you put FLOTUS on in the background while you focus on other things, you may come to the mistaken conclusion that significant stretches of the album feature very little going on. It’s telling that the opening cut, “In Care of 8675309,” is a decidedly even-keel 12-minute-long marathon featuring Wagner quietly intoning over low-key electric guitar strumming and little else for the entire runtime—and it’s one of the most immediately catchy and (relatively) energetic songs on the album.
In FLOTUS’s case, though, patience ultimately pays off. The 18-minute closer “The Hustle,” featuring atypically lush orchestration interspersed with minutes upon minutes of a taut, icy, unapologetically repetitive synth/drum machine groove, may wear that patience a bit thin. Otherwise, though, while FLOTUS may be merely adequate as a purely atmospheric experience, it not only invites, but demands listeners dig for the gold beneath its deceptively stark electronic hum.