Not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Vanity Fair
editor-in-chief Graydon Carter famously declared that it was "the end of the age of irony" and that "things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear". And for about a week he almost seemed right. But with headlines once again packed with such clearly "frivolous" topics as Janet Jackson's exposed right breast, and an adaptation of that "cheesy" old show Starsky & Hutch
about to hit theaters, it's clear that not even 9/11 or a massively controversial war could dent America's pop culture obsession or taste for the "ironic". So in hindsight, it's even more obvious now than it was then that that tanned, blow-dried jetsetter was exhaling reactionary hot air.
Trans Am, however, seem to have taken Carter's words to heart. Sort of. Their last album, TA, was their smirkiest and most winkingly ironic set of ham-ups to date. Sure, there were a few smart tracks, but many critics (Splendid notwithstanding) were right to dismiss that annoying, self-described "party record". The band have always had a playful penchant for eccentric tribute and bombast, but TA was the first time that you could actually feel yourself getting dumber as you listened to it. Liberation, then, is the post-9/11 (forgive me) response to TA's frivolity, and for the most part it's a step in the right direction.
Yes, this is a political album, or as political as any Trans Am album can be. Its cover art (chopped up pictures of marching soldiers and top Bush administration officials) and samples directly address the Iraq war while much of its dark, paranoid sound channels the fearful climate of present-day Washington, DC, the band's home turf. They purportedly left the window in their studio open during recording, so the ominous sounds of genuine blaring police sirens and swirling helicopter blades bring immediacy to tracks like "Outmoder" and "Divine Invasion II".
"Uninvited Guest", though, is the one that'll have them gossiping 'round the water cooler on Monday morning. Over a repetitive, unexceptional looped-beat backdrop, President Bush is heard spouting digitally manipulated one-liners such as, "commitment to weapons of mass destruction is America's tradition" and "in the battle of Iraq we destroyed hospitals and schools". Each statement is followed by the sound of a cheering and applauding audience. Kind of stupid, no? It's the kind of stunt on which groups like Negativland have based careers, though in this instance it's executed with particular clumsiness. (It gets a little better towards the end of the song, as the pitch of Bush's voice drops until he sounds like an orc). "Spike in Chatter", which samples a speech by the soon-to-be laughingstock Iraqi Information Minister -- about his misgivings concerning "Shock and Awe"'s ability to avoid civilian deaths -- is equally ineffective.
Thankfully, those are the only two instances in which Liberation's politics are force-fed. Elsewhere, it's just a palpable undercurrent, possibly listener-provided. The most brutal tracks certainly sound as if they're fueled by anger and dissent. "June" recites a traditionally Trans Am heavy synth line, and follows it with a searing, octave-pedaled lead guitar. The punishing "Total Information Awareness" is even heavier; with its dizzyingly panned guitar squall, scary Tangerine Dream synth and vocodered mutterings ("technology", "transparency"), the song is one with the metallic Trans Champs and Fucking Am collaborations.
There are some less apocalyptic triumphs, too. "Pretty Close to the Edge" combines acoustic guitar and Sebastian Thompson's dexterous drumming to similar effect as 2000's Red Line's amazing, epic centerpiece, "The Dark Gift". The excellent "Music for Dogs" is another in a line of New Order tributes, right down to the Bernard Sumner-esque voice and lyrics ("you used to make me laugh but I've gotten over that / it's not funny anymore"). "Remote Control" provides a brief respite of pure poppiness.
As a political album, Liberation may only be half-successful, but I'd still take angry Trans Am over the schlocky Trans Am of TA any day. Irony might never have actually died, but some of its most loyal users are now using it with more careful restraint. I think that's a good thing.