Perhaps the weirdest thing about weirdo-pop masterpiece Big Science
, an album which seems to repel all listeners not already deeply entrenched within the whole “art music” scene, is that it’s not at all confrontational--it’s actually a lot of fun to listen to. This may or may not come as a big revelation to anyone, but it does
seem to bristle with the general critical and cultural aura surrounding the album, which, let’s not forget, has Anderson on the cover looking all performance-art-y and has a track called “Let X=X” and is called “pop” on Wikipedia’s sidebar only after the more foreboding “avant-garde” and “experimental” tags are used up first. Essentially, the album seems destined to dwell only in the world of conversational references by MoMA-goers and post-M.F.A. students and the like. This is too bad, really, as Big Science
is firstly sort of the Mitochondrial Eve of a lot of pop albums that are both outwardly “weird” but also extremely enjoyable like The ArchAndroid
(2010) and Emperor Tomato Ketchup
(1996) and then secondly an awesome album in its own right. This may explain why the eight-minute centerpiece of this album, “O Superman (For Massenet),” unexpectedly shot up to the #2 spot on the UK Singles Chart when it was first released. Laurie Anderson uses vocoders and minimalism and spoken word and a lot of other things generally associated with the experimental music scene, but uses them in a way that seems very genuine and even, yes, accessible. “O Superman” isn’t catchy
or anything, but it has a sort of bizarrely entrancing and visceral effect, one that apparently--and rightly--worked itself over on the British mainstream.
I think this is the core appeal of Big Science
, and of most good experimental art in general. It forges new paths in an exciting way but also ties its technique and form to authentic feelings and emotions. It feels simultaneously alien and totally human. This is what pairs Big Science
with that new Caretaker album and then also with Mark Rothko’s paintings and Marina Abramović’s performance art and Stan Brakhage’s home videos--it’s not hard to create a piece of art that can be described as “unconventional,” but to create one that’s both unconventional and compassionate is something else entirely. Laurie Anderson, in the tradition of great experimental artists, has created something that makes you feel things
in consistently unexpected ways.
This isn’t to say that the effect of Big Science
isn’t also cerebral, though: a lot of the fun contained within the album is that of watching Anderson take disparate slabs of rhythm and melody and fit them together in ways that feel, for want of a better word, smart. The effect of opener “From the Air” is akin to something like Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” in that it begins sounding very cluttered and un-melodic before gradually easing into something quite deliciously groovy, doing so with such grace that the distance from Point A to Point B seems almost non-existent. The title track, meanwhile, is bizarre futuristic art pop taken to its thoroughly awesome apex, full of loops and vaguely tribal percussion and Anderson’s fragmented--and frequently hilarious--spoken-word quips: “‘Howdy stranger. Mind if I smoke"’ And he said: ‘every man, every man for himself.’”
All of this is essentially a roundabout way of saying that Big Science
both earns its reputation as a totally out-there pop masterpiece and thoroughly transcends that reputation; it is crazy and smart and artful but never condescending or dreary. In fact, the album includes more slices of melodic and structural genius than many of its more approachable descendants do. “Let X=X” is a thoroughly gorgeous exploration of minimal synth, probably adored by both Enya and Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never. “Sweaters,” riveting and pummeling, somehow appropriates the bagpipe into an ultimate breakup jam. And “Example #22,” which very easily could be singled out as the inspiration for the whole of Björk’s Debut
(1993), contains in its rousing final minute perhaps the album’s most indelible lyric: “NA! NA-NA-NA NA NA NA NA! NA-NA-NA NA NA NA NA!”