This album, “Penny Sparkle”, is a trap. Be careful with it, because it will trick you. We’re looking at a controversial work, one that will give rise to diametrically opposed opinions, and which can lose the band a good portion of its fans, while it conquers another new group of them. On their eighth studio LP, Blonde Redhead stray further than ever from their no-wave beginnings to pass over definitively to the narcotic side of life. The first thing that comes to mind, especially to those of us who have an altar to “Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons” (2000), is that this is a real bore. Nevertheless, the relief, which is never very pronounced, ends up laying out a dense, mysterious landscape as you listen to it several times. Effectively, “Penny Sparkle” isn’t as aberrant as it first seems, and it ends up unwinding itself like a spider’s web obstinately woven by a group that has the virtue of being able to be different with each release, while always being itself.
Since “In an Expression of the Inexpressable” (1998), the New York group’s art-pop has changed its skin in a sophisticated manner again and again, until it has reached the point where we find ourselves now: in a state of almost absolute coma. The songs on “Penny Sparkle” can’t have been easy to create. One senses pain in every minute of every song. As listeners, trying desperately to find something to pin our hopes on, the first thing that comes to mind is to compare it to its predecessor, “23”. If in that work rife with malice, the trio splashed itself all over with mud, here they decidedly make their way into a quicksand that seems to paralyse and constrain the members of the band—that is to say, their instruments. We’re looking at the most chillingly electronic Blonde Redhead of their career, where they have finally managed to put out an even more Lynch-inspired, silent album than the last one. “Penny Sparkle” throws itself fearlessly into exploring textures, synthesisers and effects, becoming a barbiturate-soaked, apathetic repertoire. Under the mandate of Van Rivers And The Subliminal Kid, producers of Fever Ray, they execute the ideas that the group didn’t have time to develop in recent songs like “Heroin”. The Scandinavian cold is a clue to follow: not only did the band record part of the album in Sweden, but it also seems to have been made with a copy of the recent and forgotten debut of the Danish Syntaks, also having taken careful note of their handwriting. Another fact to follow: mixing by new Alan Moulder, whose finds for Depeche Mode seem to be melting quickly together with those of the hydraulic Mazzy Star.
With these points of reference, you’ve by now got a general idea of what’s going on here. Yes, “Penny Sparkle” sounds drowned, single-chorded, linear, splashed only by the blood of the overwhelming falsetto of Kazu Makino, who sings, groans, whispers, and shouts now like never before. Makino is the best thing about the album, clearly. The physical quality and impossible architecture of the first works are left far behind, and the group seems more interested in amazing with mystery than with post-punk shock therapy. But even though their poisonous thorns are now blunt and barely prick us, there are still robust songs for us to fall down before (never better said, as here everything invites one to lie down). The density of the opening with “Here Sometimes” and the closing with “Spain” shouldn’t be overlooked. They are, among others, precious litanies that x-ray a band that has grown up—a career spanning twenty years—and which thinks that there are other people are around for craziness. The band is feeling its way to try to find its place in the current landscape, which is increasingly cluttered with shoe revivals, dream-pop gauze, and hypnagogic haze.
Submerged in the depths of a well filled with sea-bottom basses, industrial drums, and trip-hop solutions, “Penny Sparkle” doesn’t devastate like the great albums of its past vita violenta. Nor is it one of the 4AD jewels of this year (Ariel Pink and The National already out, Deerhunter and Gang Gang Dance in the glove compartment). Nevertheless, this complicated, indirect album continues to make the sound of a somewhat erotically-dangerous asphyxiation. It smells of sacrifice, tastes of suicide, and has the gestures of a tragedy that might do away with what Blonde Redhead has meant until now. But be careful, because if this is the case, someone might regret not having paid enough attention to the last wishes of this band that I will always find myself obligated to defend.