By Joel Elliott | 21 May 2008
When we last left Hour Hero Yes, his parent band was garnering a whopping 90% score, propelling themselves to the top of CMG’s 2006 Top 50—an act which gained more than a few baffled responses from readers. Subtle might be the closest CMG ever comes to having a pet project, and I think it’s fair to say that the reason might be that part of our collective persona (insofar as a site like this can have one) is similar to that of this band: dense, literate, inscrutable, escaping any single niche or genre, and defiantly independent. That might seem like I’m tooting our collective horn (and ok, I am) but the latter point should be obvious to anyone who noticed that every other publication practically ignored For Hero : For Fool. Our influence was felt, if at all, in asocial diehards who confront the humble and genial Dose One outside of a show to demand certain tracks be included and discluded from the set list (true story!).
But the degree to which any publication can be held responsible for an artist’s success is debatable; there is, as Malcolm Gladwell noted, a tipping point, and credit might have more to do with the presumed status of said publication moreso than actual cause and effect. At any rate, Subtle’s due recognition is coming slow, and already ExitingARM—coming off of a tour with TV on the Radio that seems to have influenced Subtle’s newfound direction at all levels, not least of which musically—has gotten a lot more attention than their last. Appropriate to our contrarian nature, there’s been an air of disappointment around the office since the album leaked; begrudgingly accepting its quality, but berating other critics for jumping on the bandwagon too late. So I’m just going to get it out of the way: ExitingARM probably isn’t as good as For Hero : For Fool. But I’m getting that out of the way because this album is way too brilliant and ambitious to be bogged down by comparisons. Any difference in quality between the two is fairly slight anyway, and ExitingARM feels too much like a leap forward into uncharted territory (which may be why it doesn’t have the immediacy of its predecessor) to be called a step back.
In fact, it’s kind of surprising that ExitingARM would garner more attention: if For Hero : For Fool smacked the listener in the face with its nightmare-collage lyrics and hairpin musical turns their newest offering requires a lot deeper digging to pull anything away. And yeah, it sounds like TV on the Radio—albeit robbed of all their confidence—and at least on the surface Subtle comes closer to pop music, and yet there’s little in the way of hooks or beats to sink your teeth into. This is evasive music: distant and somnambulant, which I think is precisely the point. I haven’t followed the Hour Hero story as closely as I could have (the ExitingARM website is more than a little daunting in its scope) but the general idea seems to be that the album marks the point when Yes, captured by the Un-Godz, is forced to churn out endless pop songs for public consumption. Secretly, however, Yes is attempting to reach through to the public and break their apathy lest they be propelled towards “The Great Nothing Much.” So the enemy in Subtle’s world has always been mediocrity: hence the middle class themes of For Hero : For Fool, wherein success and the great gaping anonymous void are one and the same. While most rappers sing of struggling in the ghetto, or the glory of getting rich, Subtle are one of the few acts willing to accept the overwhelming majority that fall into that space between Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
Which leaves Subtle and their protagonist with the pertinent question: how do you make music about mediocrity that manages to not be mediocre itself? That ExitingARM manages to dance around this gulf of anonymity—transforming the banal and mundane into the surreal and extravagant and vice-versa—is one of the most fascinating achievements the band could have hoped to attain. If For Hero : For Fool was all paranoia and bright hallucinatory visions, then ExitingARM is all dark, subtle unease that constantly threatens to break out of the pop veneer that coats it. In this sense many of the tracks seem like pop songs about to fall apart: the opening title track would be considered “anthemic” were it not for the fact that Dose One sounds like a zombie—or, as the story would have it, a man with a gun to his back being forced to write pop songs—as he chants the title. This effect can be maddening at first, but becomes more invigorating with repeated listens: while their songs have always sounded like they were slipping between the narrator’s conscience and sub-conscience, here they seem to enact the same effect on the listener.
Appropriate to Subtle’s tendency to simultaneously pull at their pop and experimental tendencies at the same time, the most pertinent riff on ExitingARM— the elastic synth on “Sick Soft Perfection” that sounds like it could have been a guitar line from Loveless (1991)—is wrapped in beats that never stay in one place, while short bursts of distortion pop and spark around them and weightless piano arpeggios almost lift the track into pure abstraction before they fade out again. The fact that the song sounds more like Can, This Heat, or Boredoms than anything remotely hip-hop shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s nice to hear Subtle finally fully absorbing these influences. It’s also evidence that the band is reaching further back than TV on the Radio, taking a page from their style of sharp corners and smooth, post-shoegaze vocals but using it to entirely different ends. I mean, I love TV on the Radio, which probably helps in appreciating ExitingARM (or at least “Gonebones”), but their songwriting has never gone as far out as their production. Subtle manage to sufficiently warp both ends.
When I first heard Subtle I figured they had several MC’s trading off; it wasn’t until I saw them live that I realized Dose One actually just had a really versatile voice. ExitingARM‘s themes of anonymity suit this vocal schizophrenia well, and while many people have—perhaps rightfully—complained that Dose’s vocal aerobics have been tamed on this record, there’s no shortage of moments where he shines at the mic. “The No” is an obvious highlight, and covers most of his major personas: over-enunciating nasally paranoid rapper Dose (with that beautiful high-pitched “a-and” thrown in there); semi-melodic euphoric/sedating Dose (see also cLOUDDEAD); Brechtian Dose that throws out every syllable with equal weight like a hammer (appropriately he sings “What’s working man’s hope?/They call it cope”); Electro Vocoder Dose; and even Intelligent Rapper Dose where he seems to drop all his inflections and appeal directly to the listener’s conscience, though perhaps that too is an illusion. And over top, him whispering throughout: “Kill ‘em with the No,” perhaps the root of Hour Hero’s subversive subliminal message to the public. Like all the other contradictions here, this message is the narrator’s own self-negation (his name is Yes after all); it seems to say, “don’t listen to me.”
And to be honest, I’ve never invested a lot in his lyrics: they’re interesting, but it’s really the delivery that counts. Like Aesop Rock, Dose One’s lyrics can just be a lot of extravagant, surreal imagery on paper, but his voice—like the music surrounding it—constantly morphs these words into icons of conflicted emotion. He makes a demented lyric like “Prey on prey ballet” sound sexy, and something as philosophically loaded as “Choosing chisels character from the dark” sound immediate. Even if this time around the music takes a more prominent role, it’s this delivery that gives ExitingARM a sense of unity. The album flirts with a ridiculous amount of genres: wall-of-sound shoegazing atmospherics on “Day Dangerous,” lo-fi folk in the interludes of “Hollow Hollered” and “Wanted Found,” Beastie Boys-inspired party rap on “Unlikely Rock Shock,” experimental electro/minimal techno on “Take to Take,” and even RIO on the stunningly avant-garde closer “Providence.” And yet the fact that it still sounds like a bunch of dudes with eclectic tastes just experimenting with sounds—as opposed to a conscious attempt to explore genres—is what keeps it from ever really resembling these styles. The trilogy’s supposedly over, but it feels like Subtle’s just getting started. Prequels, anyone?