What we have here, gentle reader, is a downtempo concept album. Supposedly. Rollo Armstrong and Mark Bates -- the guys from Faithless -- have created a surprisingly pleasant, occasionally disturbing and frequently vague meditation on childhood. Depending upon which source you choose to believe, When We Were Young is either a tale of "childhood demons, juvenile aspirations and adult failing" or a story of "love, hate, abuse and murder." Or perhaps just "a bunch of songs that occasionally mention childhood, or sometimes don't." Regardless, its mixture of gospel, funk and club grooves proves to be intoxicating.
The album has a significant non-musical hook -- its gorgeous artwork, by Jason White, which owes an obvious debt to Maurice Sendak's classic Where The Wild Things Are. The cover image features a small, horn-playing boy marching through a forest, followed by a group of "monsters". Are they chasing him, or following him parade-style? It's hard to tell. While most of the creatures appear to be friendly (a theory supported by the booklet's other illustrations), more sinister creatures lurk in the shadows -- the longer you look at the image, the more of them you'll find. After you're accustomed to the art, the psychological metaphor may seem a little heavy-handed, but you'll still appreciate the image. Like Geraldine Vo's heart-tugging artwork for the Good Life's Novena on a Nocturn, White's illustration gives When We Were Young a solid boost in the emotional depth department before you even crack the jewel case. More importantly, it does what cover art is supposed to do (but so rarely does): it makes you want to hear the album.
The album itself isn't quite as faithful to its theme; like most concept albums, some songs fit the central idea perfectly, while others seem at best only vaguely relevant. "Childhood", the disc's opener, evokes the mystery, wonder and magic of being a kid, but would work just as well if it had been named "Amazon Forest" or "Sunrise on Venus"; the title's suggestion, in other words, is all that ties the tune to its theme. Likewise, vocalist Rachael Brown, the disc's de facto maternal voice, sounds appropriately loving and protective, though songs like the gospel-tinged "Hurt U" don't necessarily offer lyrical reinforcement. When she sings "And if you hate me/Just Remember/I was hurt so now I'm hurting you," there's no comfort to be had. Then again, as the Jerry Springer show has shown us, a lot of kids have moms just like that.
Fortunately, "Always Remember to Respect Your Mother Part 1" and "Part 2", fit the central theme more appropriately, pairing the titular adage (delivered a la Baz Luhrmann's "(Everybody's Free to) Wear Sunscreen") with the vocal acrobatics of a youthful choirboy. "Part 1" is dense and beautiful, sweetly and ethereally orchestrated, while "Part 2" strips the music to a bass-heavy beat and skeletal, slightly creepy accompaniment, placing the Luhrmannesque voice-over front and center. Both are extremely effective. "Under the Sun" and the closing ballad, "If I Had A Child", offer further reinforcement (and modest juxtaposition) of the child/parent dynamic; the latter, while occasionally trite, is an occasionally chilling high point for the album's sincerity. There's also an unlisted remix bonus, which reminds us that hey, these guys used to be in Faithless.
Conceptual or not, When We Were Young is a solid album, with only one obvious misstep. "The Oscar Song", which begins with a tongue-in-cheek "acceptance speech", seems entirely out of place here. Yes, it's funny, but it doesn't fit; it sounds like an idea that Rollo and Mark thought was too clever not to put on the album. Most bands use this sort of thing as their "hidden" track, and the Dusted boys should've followed suit.
Other than that, When We Were Young is a surprisingly satisfying record. You won't learn anything new about childhood -- you probably won't even figure out what Armstrong and Bates think about it -- but really, who cares? It's a perfect record to listen to as you watch the sun set on a Sunday evening, whether you twig to the concept or not.