What's So Complicated About Bang Bang Rock 'n' Roll?
Art Brut vs. Masturbatory Rock Criticism
Sun, Broad Street Lawn, 7:30-8:45 pm.
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Of all the things that make Art Brut one of the most thrilling rock bands alive, the one that rock critics get hung up on is their Pitchfork-baiting conceptual shtick. I am, perhaps unfortunately, no different.
In case you're just joining the party: Art Brut, literally "rough art" or "raw art," is a term coined to describe art produced by those outside of traditional institutions. According to its own myths, rock 'n' roll is outsider art—informal, rebellious, decentralized, proletarian. But in another way, rock 'n' roll is absolutely an institution, with its own traditions and codes. Because of this duplicity, rock 'n' roll artists are constantly scrutinized for things like sincerity, irony, pretense, etc. Its outsiders champion their status even as they try to force their way into the game; its insiders struggle to appear genuine and green.
So when a band call themselves Art Brut (an insider's term for an outsider); debut with a song about the giddy, naive joy of forming a band (while sneaking in non-naive references to the Smiths and taking pains to declare, "It's not irony/it's not rock 'n' roll); and name their debut album Bang Bang Rock & Roll, things get, well, a bit complicated.
That debut record is brilliant, in no small part because of Eddie Argos's reflexive persona. The frontman posits himself as both insider (sly, winking pop-cultural know-it-all) and outsider (wide-eyed everyman rock 'n' roll fan), moching at the distinction in the process. For every moment of sweet sincerity—the rollicking first-love nostalgia of "Emily Kane," the embarrassing sexual anxiety of "Rusted Guns of Milan"—there's a self-conscious aside about pop charts or music magazines. Even the earnestly enthusiastic rush of the title track contains sacrilegious digs at sex, drugs, and the Velvet Underground.
The genius of Art Brut is that they tear down the barriers between the inside and the out, between the self-aware and the sincere, with total glee. Argos, who looks like he grew up watching too much Jarvis Cocker on Top of the Pops (and really, you can't get to "Emily Kane" without the Deborah of "Disco 2000"), could be sincere about reading the pop charts, or not; he might be calculating about revealing relationship woes, or he might not be. You can't tell what's what, and Art Brut make you feel silly for even trying, for caring about things like intention when you should be busy rocking out.
But if Art Brut's next-level pop rock is simultaneously studied and sincere, it really isn't irony. Rarely does one see a band play with such genuine love, such unbounded enthusiasm. God, they even have songs about how genuine their songs are—it's like some kind of musical M. C. Escher drawing. Can you even have a song about how genuine your songs are? Can Argos demand, "No more songs about sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll" in a song about those very things, just before launching into the willfully stupid, rock-killing chorus, "Bang bang/Rock 'n' roll"?
It's the wrestling with these admittedly nerdy questions—to the tune of a steady backbeat, some simple chord progressions, and a slew of catchy riffs—that makes Art Brut so much more than merely another great rock band (although, make no mistake, they are a fucking great rock band).
With their recent sophomore album, It's a Bit Complicated, all us enamored rock critics, like myself, worried that Argos and company would blow their tenuous charm trying to reproduce the novelty of Bang Bang Rock & Roll's sincere meta pop. The conceit of Bang Bang Rock & Roll was fantastic, but it would have been impossible to pull off a sequel. If there's anything to learn from the Streets, it's that people love conceptual albums about a regular punter with grand aspirations, but they hate the victory record. So rather than bore us with some ruminations about tour buses or the summer festival circuit, Argos wisely retreats back to a kind of prefame persona. The album abandons the self-referential routine in favor of more prosaic songs about Argos's everyman efforts at love, his juvenile fandom of pop music, and the clashes thereof, with nary a self-aware song about assembling rock combos, cracking the Top 40, or relocating to entertainment-industry meccas (the only glimmer of their old tricks comes via the cute breaking of the fourth wall in their video for "Direct Hit").
The irony is that it's quite a bit less complicated than its predecessor. And that's exactly why it succeeds.