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Beneath the cold and user-unfriendly surface of this album is one of the most mind-bendingly original works of the era. It's a series of excerpts distilled from Anderson's four-hour long theatrical work "United States". A versatile performance artist, her surreal, symbolic prose is both sung and spoken, switching between witheringly sarcastic and innocently ethereal tones. Underlying it all is a stark, creepy musical background composed not only of electronics but an array of imaginatively-chosen instruments.
Sometimes her poetry recital needs the bare minimum of accompanying sound, as on "Walking and Falling". At the other extreme, her piercing expressionism can be absolutely frightening. "Sweaters" jabs you in the eye with its demented bagpipe, random drum bashes, and what sounds like a wailing baby stuffed inside a saxophone. But it can be beautiful when necessary. The mechanical riff underlying the opening story "From the Air" flows over four minutes into a lushly arching phrase.
It was odd times that made "O Superman" a hit in the UK. If you're allergic to Vocoders stay away from this song, but it's a masterpiece of restraint. Spooky in its stubborn quietness, it's sustained over eight minutes by a single vocoder beat. As Anderson recites her wistful lament on the progress of technology, the music is varied in the most subtle ways. To conclude the selections, Example #22 is a bizarre blend of Berlin chic and perky swing. The continuous Let X = X / It Tango is decorated with a spiky group of out-of-time calypso horns.
The album makes an enveloping experience with the lights out and no distractions. I wish I could have seen the live show to add another dimension, as the flow of the songs on the album seems somewhat disjointed. Some might also be put off by its spiky mechanical intellectualism. For those, Anderson's "Bright Red" from twelve years later has all of its intimate expression but delivered with a more serene warmth.
February 17, 2005