Fuck the kids, man. Inevitably, Suicide was going to reunite. And it was going to be transcendent. And they were going to show the world that it is entirely possible for fifty-year olds to be creative and relevant and, if anything, leagues ahead of the pop music curve. But all that was needed was some manner of catalyst. Sadly, instead of an attaché case full of unmarked bills, that catalyst was September 11th. For this most New York of bands (fuck all the others, this band is THE essential Gotham soundtrack), the events were harrowing, wrenching, and while New Yorkers were trying to piece their lives back together in that resilient New York-kinda way, Vega got over his writer’s block and laid down hellish scats and menacing soulboy croons over tracks that his enigmatic songwriting partner, Martin Rev, turned out like a Bizarro World Tin Pan Alley.
Yeah, so as I was saying, out of a case of confidence-destroying writers’ block comes American Supreme, the most honest to god patriotic album that I’ve ever heard in my life. And I mean patriotic in a founding fathers’ kind of way (not in a dumbass, fake, fucking jingoistic, un-American asshole Toby Keith way), willing to question the very fiber of the country they love so much. Man, there’s a fucking flag on the cover. It’s in the seeming contradiction of calling a record American Supreme and then using said record to deconstruct the sublime beauty and violence of American society and its place in the world. And, I’d imagine, a subtle tip of the hat to Coltrane’s immortal A Love Supreme, itself a search for new meanings and new hopes through the ecstatic power of music. A worthy lineage.
The first track, “Televised Executions,” is misleading, the red herring of the album. No, wait, it’s actually a red herring tied to a gigantic middle finger pointed at everyone who said that Suicide couldn’t expand their sonic formula. So you’ve got record scratching, funk guitar and liquid bass all competing for space over Vega’s echo-hell vocals, a strange mixture of growls, howls and clipped words. It’s the perfect synthesis between Iggy, jazz scatting and Burroughs’ cut-ups come to life. “Mystery Train” is the perfect crystallization of the stage of grief where numbness and ice begins to overwhelm the sadness that has filled your soul. Vega stumbles around, lost in the subway, looking for the mystery train and almost offhandedly mumbling that he “buried his brother today.” Meanwhile, Rev tends to a stately synth rhythm that’s like a tragic Pet Shop Boys. It’s a stunning eulogy. “Beggin’ For Miracles” is all b-boy swagger, mixed with Vega’s switchblade preacher shtick. But guess what? Suddenly, all of his doomy prophecies have come true, so it turns out you better listen to him quite closely.
Tracks like “Swearin’ To The Flag” and “American Mean” show some evidence that Rev and Vega have been actively absorbing club culture over the years — but they temper the optimism with an anger spawned from twenty years of being beaten on and fucked with and then the wisdom that comes out of carving your own way inch by bloody inch. It’s all like showing Easy Rider at a rave with Brando, circa On The Waterfront, as the dj. Yeah! “Wrong Decisions” beats Cypress Hill at their own laid-back, stoner-gangsta game (funky!), coupled with some sampled R&B horns and Vega’s most eerily intimate vocal performance. It’s mixed all high and dry, to the point where his gasps and moans sound all visceral, like they’re little knives running up and down your back, and the deadpan words are whispered deep into your ear.
The schizophrenia in post-millennial American society is laid bare in two of the album’s thematic and sonic polar opposites. The white noise fever dream of “Dachau, Disney, Disco,” where a shrine of found sound houses the three words, the three faces of America, repeated again and again. On the other end of the spectrum is “Child In A New World,” trying to find hope and life among the ruin, wedding a chop-shopped hedonistic club beat to Vega freestyling and growling words of optimistic encouragement (as Suicide are, at their core, the very opposite of nihilism) to the young’uns trying to find their way in the post-September 11th world. It’s ironic that the song which kickstarted the whole American Supreme process is the piece that closes the record. “I Don’t Know” is a brutal industrial mantra where Vega, helix-looped into an infinity of voices, lays bare his paralyzing self-doubts and fears in a series of clipped phrases like, “I don’t know what to do/should I cry/ should I lash out.”
American Supreme authoritatively does away with two truisms: (1) that rock and roll is a young man’s game, and (2) that all your heroes will eventually disappoint you. I’ve been following Alan and Marty for about a decade now, and they haven’t let me down. I assure you, on the strength of American Supreme, that they won’t. This is real. New York forever.
Mute Records: www.mutelibtech.com/index.html