We Are the Night Label: Astralwerks
There are few genres in music as elitist and cruel as the world of electronic music. License your song to a commercial, you’re a sellout. Remix or produce a Madonna track, you’re a sellout. Indeed, if you do anything that raises your profile, you’re a sellout. Fatboy Slim and Moby created an endless number of inroads for electronic music of all kinds to be seen and heard on a larger stage. As a reward for their efforts, the electronic community made pariahs out of both of them.
Then there are the Chemical Brothers who, like label mates Air, have done the seemingly impossible: embraced the mainstream without losing their street cred. How have they survived the tumultuous waters of electronica for over 12 years? For starters, they have shown a deft touch when picking collaborators (Beth Orton, Bernard Sumner, Flaming Lips, Magic Numbers, Q-Tip, Noel Gallagher), but more importantly, each new release has marked a radical departure from anything the band had released up to that point. Dig Your Own Hole was all about the bass, while its follow-up, Surrender, had almost no low end whatsoever. Come With Us was techno-prog, while Push the Button dabbled in hip hop and funk.
Which brings us to We Are the Night, the Chemicals’ newest. It’s incredibly good, of course, but it is the first album in the band’s catalog that feels familiar from the first listen, both from a production standpoint and a musical one. There is much to enjoy, but it’s not the unique listening experience that their previous albums were.
Take the down-the-rabbit-hole squawk that opens the title track, for example. If that’s not a direct sample of a similar moment on Surrender track “The Sunshine Underground,” then it is a remarkable reproduction. The following track, “All Rights Reversed,” is a nifty duet with Klaxons that gleefully subverts the vocal melody to “Paint it Black.” Why, then, tag the big wash that closes “Star Guitar” to the end of it? With all the gear they have at their disposal, it’s surprising to see them do anything twice, especially when it means giving an otherwise excellent song such a pat ending.
That is not to say the old dogs don’t learn some new tricks, and there is no better example than “The Salmon Dance,” the first moment where the Chemical Brothers exhibit a rather keen sense of humor. The track is a “Get Yourself High”-style old school rap track featuring Fatlip, complete with a bone-dry commentary delivered by Sammy the Salmon, who explains how the fish rely on ocean currents, tides and gravitational pull from the Moon to assist their senses. “The Moon! Fish pay attention to the Moon?” Fatlip says in amazement, though his last line in the song is his best (to say more would spoil it). If, however, you’re fonder of their block-rockin’ instrumentals, fear not: “Saturate” is the band’s most drumtastic track since “Come With Us,” and “Burst Generator” will make Pet Shop Boys fans happy, as its repeated snare drum riff recalls a rave version of PSB’s “Miracles.” So why, with all these dee-lish tracks from which to choose, did they pick the Ali Love duet “Do It Again” to serve as the first single? Don’t have an answer for that, since it’s one of the weakest singles the band’s ever released.
So yes, the Chemicals are getting a little forgetful here and there when it comes to augmenting some songs and wrapping up others. But at the same time, the band has expanded its sound in such a way that they are barely even an electronic band anymore. (That’s a compliment, by the way.) The number of collaborations per album seems to be increasing, which does make one wonder if the band is leaning on outside contributions in order to stay fresh, but when you consider that the Chemical Brothers have yet to make a truly bunk record, or even an average one, they have more than earned the benefit of the doubt. And once you get past the occasional sonic repetition, We Are the Night more than holds its own with the band’s best work.