(Sub Pop; 2013)
By Robin Smith | 30 August 2013
It’s hard not to feel caught up in a record as idealistic as An Object. It wants to be venomous, maybe even revolutionary, and at the very least just punk, inviting everyone along except the man, who it has a radar on. A song with as much thrust-forward voltage as “No Ground” would cause the man to put hands over his ears; “Lock Box” folds its arms and tells him he isn’t getting in. An Object, more than any no frills punk record I’ve heard since The Monitor (2010), wears its DIY autonomy like a badge. No more ambient in this punk, No Age say, no more miasma; it’s just us. Dean Spunt and Randy Randall decided to take on all design, manufacture and production work on An Object, and the result is a fixation with owning one’s art and making it something only the true can hold. That’s why it’s different things to different people: An Object! to the kid at the show and “An Object” to the person who didn’t get in, but also An Object? to the people behind it. No Age treat their music like a question: when is it real? After a show? Or does it have to be put in a box before you accept it exists?
An Object is summed up best by Dean Spunt himself, who shrugged and called it “uncomfortable.” That word implies the music is getting too close to your face, which hasn’t been No Age’s intention before, but is the consequence of making a truly stripped down punk record. Listening to it, you can feel someone’s eyes beaming into yours, and you can’t see enough distance separating you. There are enough second person confrontations here to kick off a sing-along, and to piss of everyone else. “I Won’t Be Your Generator,” built out of a flat and homogenous chord progression from Randall and a loose, simple drumbeat from Spunt, quotes its title with a smirk. It’s a debased version of a No Age song, tired and half-baked, the music played numbing the song’s politically resistant lyrics. “You’ll get no power from me” is a truly punk line, the kind you’d yell back without full contextual appreciation, but it’s sung like the whole idea is quixotic: the best way to protest is to never rev up.
All these coded confrontations mean An Object hasn’t translated well on the internet. Along with its materialist manifesto, it’s a doggedly physical record, one that gets handed over in person to those who want it. “I Won’t Be Your Generator” and the vitriolic “No Ground” (which starts the record for real with its nasty bass notes) show No Age know the difference between fans and appropriators. “Lock Box,” too, incites a gang vocal late into its game, the kind too assailed by the crunch of guitars to be inviting, instead coming as a threat. It would go over well live because of how it can split its listeners down the middle; think of that small DIY space in your city, the one that routinely hosts a crowd of people really into it, but also a bunch of shyer music fans who spend their time perpetually backing away from that mic set up in the crowd. It exists somewhere between the two. It’s for the punk, but also the punk’s timid friend. It sounds raucous but also reserved, as passionate as it is disengaged. It could fill a whole setlist, too.
No Age are punks, but they’re tired punks. An Object heaves with the exhaust of putting out a record all on your own; Spunt hoped he and Randall would be able to put it out forever, pressing it infinitely, but its music reflects the sense in which you’d get tired after shipping a few thousand. There are moments where the duo falter and end up telling us the brutal truth instead: DIY made them sleepy. My favourite example is “Running from a-Go-Go,” a purposely quiet, back-of-the-bus love song in which Spunt is pissed off at his touring schedule, bemoaning “one more night alone again” but too tired to stay mad at the road. Spunt sings variants of this line over and over, letting it teeter off before he reasserts it, as if he can’t keep his eyes open long enough to finish his thought. The drums sound submissive, and like most of An Object, “Running from a-Go-Go” tinkers with ambience and noise around its edges, as if the scene is about to fade out. A serene guitar abstraction comes half way in, but it isn’t used to the exhilarating effect of a No Age banger like “Fever Dreaming”; it’s just as a pretty scene when your head’s pressed against the bus window.
An Object scales back the ambitious and ostensibly ambient sound of Everything in Between (2010), but it remains gloomily meditative. Everything was fronted with a few transcendent singles, the rest of it a long, sweaty celebration that fed back to the beginning of the party; it was fuzzy, but only “ambient” in the sense that the last twenty minutes felt like an extension of the first ten. If earlier No Age was ambient, though, An Object is a drone, moody and commiserating, not so much continuing a good thing as it is complaining about the same old shit. Without reverb cushioning them—an amplified, irritable sound is instead made by filling the room with contact mics—No Age fall hard. On “Defector/ed,” a song about art peeling off the walls, Spunt mentions “stripped away intentions,” “erased obsessions,” and radio waves “designed to fade away,” inventing three euphemisms for the same problem. He spits them over Randall’s chunky, palm-muted riffs as if he doesn’t need to bother keeping time. It’s arguably the most pessimistic thing they’ve written, its melody only able to seep through the cracks, and it requires a song as sickly sweet as “An Impression” to bring colour back to the record. When Spunt sings “discontent,” spreading the word thinly through the backend of “Defector,” it feels like he’s unveiled An Object’s rejected title.
The push and pull of An Object is found in its attempts to be physical, but feedback drenched closer “Commerce, Comment, Commence” suggests that art only exists in phases. With “My Hands, Birch and Steel,” it provides a shapeless sound for the record, using guitars as landscaping. It gives fans of ambient No Age what they want (which, apparently, is Tim Hecker), but it does so in the way the meanest fuckers give people what they want; it’s pretty at first, while Spunt’s still hanging around, but it becomes amorphous and ugly, dissolving into dissonant layers of sound. The way An Object ends is cruel and subliminal, considering its obsession with solidifying moments, making products and containing music within an actual box. No Age want to put the lid on their music, but “Commerce” gets to escape as just another thing that couldn’t last forever. What does the physical matter, though, if we’ve got the metaphysical? If No Age can play a show and their fans can scream abuse at the corporate dude who isn’t even there? That’s all An Object needs to jam: the moment before it all fades away.