Look, don’t let me fool you, there’s no real way to prepare for the Pop Group’s debut record, “Y”. It’s truly rare that you run across music that’s a complete singularity. It makes you question the bounds of the medium, and certainly makes modern day “experiments” seem tame at best.
1979 was a watershed. The Sex Pistols were gone, the Clash released a record that effectively wasn’t punk, and the community was reeling over the growing appropriation of their movement by record execs. with dreams of selling “Anarchy in the U.K.” T-shirts to everyone and the Queen. Post-Punk rose from the squall, a nervous, jerking, introverted school that eschewed anthemics for experimentation and academia. The Pop Group found their place in the scene, but music this weird could never ‘fit in’ anywhere.
Mark Stewart is a raucous prophet fresh back from his long sabbatical in Hell, taut with conviction and fury that explode in equal, alternating parts from his grizzled, crumbling vocal cords. “Western values mean nothing to her/ she’s the girl of our dreams”, he squeals over a thumping bassline dance and the chaotic jangle of soulless funk guitar on “Beyond Good and Evil”. You could say they’re political, but that doesn’t quite go far enough. “Y” is a treatise; an exercise in philosophy. It’s not policy they’re out to change, but Western civilization as we know it. Scared? Yeah, it’s sort of scary. Maybe that’s why nobody bought the record when it was released. In this way, the title’s more of an accusation. Why.
This is in no way an easy album. It feels diseased, harmony and tonality bursting like red sores on Stewart’s back. He’s reveling in it all. There’s always something there to keep you grounded: the proto-Pixies guitar tango that pervades “We Are Time”, the painfully tight rhythm section, the almost-ambient oriental piano glide of “Savage Sea”, but don’t get too comfortable. The swinging sax burp that introduces “Don’t Call Me Pain” descends quickly into chaotic free-jazz slosh. “Snow Girl” is abrasive only in its refusal to settle on one direction. Psycho-Sinatra lounge crooning or hyperfunk attack? Why not both?
Sometimes, ‘songs’ become irrelevant. “Blood Money” is essentially a piece of musique concrete, weaving eerie found-sounds, treated feedback, and the delicate noise of supercomputer meltdown together while Stewart reminds us: “Even if it makes no sense, an order is an order.” “Don’t Sell Your Dreams” feels like a universe caught in slow collapse, zipping and roaring and crashing while the members of the band play away at an impossibly slow pace as if watching from above or beyond. These more structureless songs float by like the ‘furniature music’ Eno was making around the same time, so much so that you grow almost calm. Then the cacophony returns. It’s never too long.
The record is unexpected, more than anything else. It’s diverse, but never feels like hodgepodge. You’ll disco, then you’ll slam dance, then you’ll stare in wonderment (maybe confusion). The production is perhaps as novel as the material within. It’s harsh as any post-punk piece was at the time, with guitars that slice the skin of your neck, but there’s an intense warmth to that soft echo after the first chord of “Beyond Good and Evil,” taking queues from Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’.
If you like to feel challenged, even made uneasy, by your music, this is a must-listen. It’s destructively sonically and lyrically, and that’s thrilling. Give it four or five listens, and even the darkest moments start to feel beautiful. 9/10