Talking Robots and Relationships with Electro Rockers the Juan MacLean
The Juan MacLean's new album, The Future Will Come, begins with romantic dissolution and ends in domestic bliss; in between, there are robots. These robots fight, flirt, fuck, and eventually, against all logical odds, fall in love. They are voiced by John MacLean and Nancy Whang, the Juan MacLean's principal players for this album. They are, like all androids, both less than human and in some ways stronger than human, although mostly they're just a metaphor for how cold and mechanical being human can sometimes feel.
MacLean first developed a thing for the man-machines in high school, when he became a fan of the pioneering electronic music of Kraftwerk and the head-fucking science fiction of Philip K. Dick.
"I'm not a big science-fiction fan," says Mac-Lean. "I have an aversion to the whole fantasy realm of science fiction. But a writer like Philip K. Dick just raised a lot of philosophical questions about the nature of being human.
"And being that young, and discovering this German electronic band—these guys who were professing to be robots, would dress up in these uniforms, at one point actually had robots that took their place playing onstage, and they were singing about [robots], using vocoders, and playing really locked-down music that back then sounded really futuristic—that became such an influence for me throughout my entire music career."
In 1990, MacLean cofounded Providence, Rhode Island, band Six Finger Satellite, a dark post-punk outfit to which MacLean lent skuzzy, inhuman synthesizer (and guitar) tones, and which went on to record five albums for Sub Pop between 1993 and 1998. When that band dissolved, MacLean retired from music for a while and spent some time battling a heavy drug addiction. ("Being addicted to those drugs was an incredibly monotonous existence," says MacLean. "Doing the same really unexciting things every single day, with episodes of insanity—you do become very robotic.")
In the early 2000s, James Murphy (Six Finger Satellite's sound guy and an old friend) convinced MacLean to record for his then-fledgling DFA label. In 2002 and 2003, the Juan MacLean released a string of superb singles, ranging from the pulsing big-room techno of "You Can't Have It Both Ways" to the sly electro-funk workout "Give Me Every Little Thing," followed in 2005 by the less-striking full-length debut Less Than Human.
But if Less Than Human was a relative letdown, MacLean's recent sophomore album, The Future Will Come, is a total triumph, a huge leap forward for the Juan. For one thing, it's a much more lyrically ambitious album, with Human's piffling dance-floor exhortations replaced by a loose, disconnected narrative about two characters—humans? Robots?—trying (and ultimately succeeding) to feel love.
It's also naturally what you might call more song-oriented, with just a few extended dance tracks bracketing several three-or-four-minute-long synth-pop numbers. And whereas on previous records, MacLean either ceded vocals to collaborators or relied on a vocoder to process his voice, here he steps up to the microphone unadorned, trading vocals equally with Whang. The male/female vocal interplay, combined with the album's glassy synthesizers, often recalls the Human League (see especially "One Day" and "The Station"), only, blessedly, without sounding overly retro.
"They became an easy sort of template to use," says MacLean. "When we first were talking about having an equal male/female presence vocally, we were like, let's go out and compile songs we like that feature that kind of thing. I just assumed there was all kinds of stuff out there like that, but the only thing we could really find was the Human League.
"The intention from the beginning was to take it away from first-person observations of relationship stuff into this realm of getting both sides of the story," MacLean continues. "I thought it made for a much more compelling narrative arc."
That arc begins with album opener "The Simple Life," on which MacLean sings, "Giving in to a simple life/Was nothing that I wanted with you," opting instead for the great unknown, much to Whang's distress. "One Day" sees Mac-Lean sifting through the memories and detritus of the abandoned relationship ("A picnic on the hillside/Clothes of many colors/Lying on the bedside") while Whang warns, "One day, baby, you'll realize that I'm the only one." "Tonight" finds the lovers reuniting out at the club and going home together to live ever after in the "Happy House" of the album's ebullient final track, a classic house epic in which an unstoppably uplifting piano loop is launched into acid-strafed space while Whang sings wide-eyed praises.
Throughout, there are shades of Dick's android anxieties.
"It became an easy device to use," says Mac-Lean of the robot imagery, "an easy metaphor for my own feelings of alienation or inability to connect with people." At the same time, though, there's an implication of superiority—that the automaton might be better off for not feeling either the joy of connection or the attendant pain of disconnect. "I think that's part of the conflict," says MacLean. "You know, it always seems like the person who's more unfeeling or colder wins out in these kinds of struggles, for better or for worse."
Superimposed over the romantic plot and robot talk is a broader existential conflict, made most explicit on album bookends "The Simple Life" and "Happy House," between the banal day-to-day and the desire for some great escape (such themes make The Future Will Come a timely thematic companion to Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, if a stark sonic contrast). Of course, that desire can be a kind of death-drive toward "oblivion," or "the great unknown" can turn out to be just as dull as what you hoped to leave behind (see "drugs," above).
Ultimately, though, the record ends on a hopeful note with "Happy House." The track not only makes a good case for music as an ideal, if temporary, means of lifting off from this world, but also suggests that some synthesis of the mundane and the transcendent is not entirely impossible. Love wins out over alienation, the domestic becomes a source of the ecstatic, and MacLean, it turns out, is human after all.