Review Summary: Sleigh Bells deliver their most experimental effort yet, treating their own catalogue like a weapon and asking, dangerously, “Whatever happened to the era I imagined?”
Like a lot of people this week, it’s been difficult finding much of anything consequential. Among historic election results spelling paranoia and anxiety for leagues of Americans, I’ve struggled to care about the things I usually love the most. I’m distant from my friends, unfocused in class and I’m hardly listening to music at all. The albums I’ve always leaned on for company in times of distress now feel ingenuine and unrelatable, helpless to convey the political dread and profound listlessness I’ve seen in myself and so many of my peers this week. There are surely records that speak to a similar sensation - Fatima Al Qadiri’s Brute
comes to mind - but how could one put to music the powerless, damning panic of feeling like your country and half its voters have just told you your life doesn’t matter? How can you care about things like sex and breakups when your own nation seems to have taken a hard right turn against you?
As it turns out, a proximity to turmoil can be fabulously revelatory. The weight of a greater crisis can push one’s perception of self into unfamiliar, unbroken territories, asking what a broken heart feels like in the face of apocalypse, wondering what an unrequited lover is to someone about to be deported from their country. Sleigh Bells’ latest LP, Jessica Rabbit
, is an album about all these things; it’s a record about anguished love and betrayal, relationships gone sour and how to carry on when it feels like it’s just you against the world. But in its closeness to something greater, something far more menacing and threatening, these ideas take on a strange new semblance, transforming miniscule personal details into political rallying cries. It’s flawed and abrasive but it’s also extremely relevant, funneling emotionality through the geyser of a nation in crisis, a world flirting with its own destruction.
It might seem peculiar that an aging novelty group would be the ones to come out with such a topical record in 2016, but Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss have been working towards this moment for years, dramatically repurposing their aesthetic for entirely new meaning. Throughout Jessica Rabbit
, you can hear the phantom of Treats’ stadium banger choruses and Reign of Terror’s enormous rock guitars possessing the album’s general form. The melodies are still instantly infectious and undercut with a self-aware sardonicism the duo have developed over their relatively brief career. Here, however, they’re employing what made them famous against its own nature, crafting a beast that leans against its origins while still wholly partaking in them.
picks up the elements of their previous three records and violently reassembles them, often placing unalike shards next to one another in melodic diptychs that are as confounding as they are intriguing. The album is never still, constantly stopping only to restart in brazen new directions as simple guitar verses are severed and pulled apart next to Krauss’s sugary vocals. Like they were cut and pasted from different songs, bridge progressions totally shatter a song’s sense of momentum and throw the whole track on a different course. In the same breath, Miller displays his signature stadium showmanship as he does a renewed impulse towards trap-oriented beatmaking as almost every second of the album swirls from hair-metal to industrial hip hop with overwhelming abandon. It can be difficult to adapt to the album’s manic nature but Miller’s extraordinary command over his own material keeps the recklessness grounded in a tangible sense of intentionality - there are no accidents or stupid mistakes here, after three years of development it’s clear that every chaotic key change and jarring chorus are placed on purpose. It’s selfish and unfriendly, but it works to the album’s disreality: we know we’re listening to pop music, but what has it become? How does anyone even try to take it seriously?
This cartoonish simulacrum of genre and form bleeds into the album’s lyrical content as well. Miller has explained the record’s title comes from a crush he had on the eponymous Jessica Rabbit in middle school and that his inability to materialize those feelings for an unreal character represents one the album’s greatest tensions. The genuinity of Krauss’s vocals is constantly frayed by a nagging feeling that none of this is real, none of it matters: “Sometimes I cease to exist,” she sings on “I Can’t Stand You Anymore,” “so why even bother?” Even the album’s most explicitly pop moment, “I Can Only Stare,” takes love and emotion and thrusts it closer to the void, “Why are we sharing the same breath / ‘till there’s nothing left but carbon dioxide?” Everything on Jessica Rabbit
is being sucked away, slowly degraded and wiped clean until all we see is an image of Miller alone in “Rule Number One,” the incendiary, mounting guitar collapsing into a stationary moment: “You’re high as a kite watching Lion King / You can’t feel a thing, but your knee hurts / Heartbeats speeding by / It’s the fight of your life.”
And then there’s “As If,” the album’s blistering finale and perhaps the strongest isolation of Jessica Rabbit’s
aesthetic. Rawed and worn by the other forty one minutes of the record, Krauss is standing alone in a sonic canyon, pummeling rhythmic and ruptured electronic blasts surrounding her as she sings against the discord, “Spittin’ out nothing / an infinite loop of literally bad news.” Miller has said these lyrics were written about Donald Trump towards the beginning of his presidential campaign and they give the record the framework missing from the rest of the project. The shadow cast over Jessica Rabbit’s
broken speakers reveals itself in the final minutes: an existential political horror, a force that renders every teary eye and wrinkled heart meaningless in its wake.
It’s “Baptism of Fire” that delivers a real thesis statement, Krauss blankly intoning with the piano, “A cruel satire of rock and roll / Soulful, cheap and rightly so.” Jessica Rabbit
is dense and unappealing, difficult and unentertaining and sometimes almost impossibly hard to swallow. The otherwise incredible “Unlimited Dark Paths” utilizes the record’s signature shifts in the worst way imaginable as it lurches into a grating, cringe-inducing bridge. “The sun came up, a tragedy,” Krauss delivers, Miller grinning in the background as he rubs the sharp edge of his own creation against you. It’s the sound of faceless anxiety, completely out of one’s hands and yet encroaching upon you anyway, reorienting every kiss, tear and heartache you’ve ever felt in its consuming wake. Bloodied by the weaponized instrumentation, we hear these words: “You can’t go back the way you came / Full speed ahead.”