The Golden Age
Fucking for money while on heroin. Cocaine, rampant capitalism, and seminal fluids. The Golden Age might not be something you might want to play for your mom on Thanksgiving, but according to Bobby Conn, they’ve already met anyway. Those familiar with the work of Mr. Bobby Conn already know these themes well: the trademark seamless melding of utter misanthropy and shimmering, eclectic pop is a given incentive. Yet The Golden Age is, while not completely unprecedented, a departure.
On his 1998 album Rise Up!, Conn promised the end of the world upon his 33rd birthday, which came and went sometime last year. The Golden Age shows you that things went to shit long before he turned thirty-three, you’ve just been ignoring it for longer than you can remember. Conn’s hatred is more focused here. While his self-titled release and Rise Up! might seem like exercises in irony, The Golden Age is, at the very core, a much more bleak affair.
“Angels” is a perfect example of this evolution. Rather than settling for a vague jab at Jesus or capitalism, Conn weaves a psychodrama involving a basement full of teenagers suffering from cocaine-induced hallucinations. Where Conn used to use an extremely cheerful hook and cynical lyrics to create something humorous, there is now something that seems more disturbing. Conn uses dramatic signifiers like a softly-picked flanger-ridden acoustic guitar, Danny Elfmanesque “evil” piano flourishes, and minor-key vocal harmonies, then subverts them with a very forced-sounding cowbell driven drum line and an almost plastic shredding guitar chords, while sloganeering, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Conn is manipulating the ears of his audience with skill heÃs only hinted at in earlier albums.
This is not to say The Golden Age is without a sense of humor. The ability to pastiche music is one of Conn’s great talents. His music digs at the meaning of popular idioms. Conn makes clear allusions to Parliament Funkadelic in “No Revolution,” and nods to AM pop, relaxed Latin jazz, and certainly progressive and glam rock make appearances as well. He takes gestures that are supposedly evocative to expose the absolute sound behind them. At times, Conn will use a heavily distorted electric guitar to garner intensity, at others, a cheap sounding synthesizers to gain a sense of futuristic decay, and one of his favorite tools, instigating soul with a standard funk bass lines is certainly prevalent on every album Yet, Conn never sacrifices a good melody for the sake of making “art.” I don’t mean to infer that The Golden Age is simply a tossed-off pop album, it’s far too snide to ever enter that world. The album isn’t simply a cynical satire either, Conn is putting himself out on the line more than just poking fun at Alice Cooper. The title track “A Taste of Luxury” takes metal guitar-harmony riffing, an electric bass and string combination reminiscent of Serge Gainsbourg’s Histiore De Melodie Nelson, a completely over-the-top exuberant horn section thanks to the always-impressive Thymme Jones, and finally settles on a sparse jagged funk guitar line. This is a much-refined sounding amalgamation of disparate elements, a far cry away from the blatant Jackson 5-style appropriation on his self-titled release.
On The Golden Age, Conn makes his misanthropy work for him. On previous albums, everyone could wink at each other because everyone was in on the joke. A 5’4″ guy screaming about being the anti-Christ and free money over a polished (though that polish was becoming increasingly revelatory) funk template. Sometime in between Conn’s 6-minute cover of Harry Nilsson’s cover of “Without You” on the 1999 Llovessonngs EP and The Golden Age , Conn stopped laughing. Conn still sings with mock sincerity on some tracks, but the tracks where he mocks his violent affectation are just as disturbing; the tracks where producer Jim O’Rourke mixes the vocals at an inaudible level provide a similar effect. The absolute animosity on The Golden Age is more in the forefront, no longer shrouded by the layers of self-deprecating humor that might have pervaded his past work.
All said and done, The Golden Age doesnÃt present Conn’s strongest collection of melodies, but his musical innovation and lyrics easily compensate for the lack of a collection of easy-to-stomach singles. Similar to past Conn releases, The Golden Age is something of a botched concept album. This time around, Conn proves how very calculating he is with his craft, placing just the right inconsistencies in all the wrong places, and ultimately opening a new, more refined chapter in his career.