It must be difficult being a trailblazer; so much expectation that everything you do is brilliant that it’s almost stifling. It creates a pressure that many good musicians simply can’t deal with: Kurt Cobain’s suicide was, in part, driven by fans who constantly told him to play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ when they had many other good songs. Tom Yorke of Radiohead called big songs ‘[an] Iron Lung’ – something that keeps you alive, but ultimately restricts you.
This is where The Chemical Brothers come in, even though it’s difficult to call them ‘trailblazers’ (Kraftwerk, Neu!, etc. had already pioneered Electronic music in the 70s) in musical terms, in terms of what they (and others) brought electronic music opened the door for so many others; their personalities, their brand of radio-friendly electronic music (as opposed to the 10-minute tracks Kraftwerk offered!), etc. all made Electronica a viable genre in its own right. Since then, we’ve had Electronica music acts coming out of our ears and Electro-pop has dominated the British musical scene for the better part of a decade.
The other part of being a trailblazer is keeping your repertoire fresh; music which sounded new in 1995 might not necessarily keep sounding new until 2015. It’s a trap that many have fallen into – especially in a genre so swiftly-changing as Electronic – and it’s one that The Chemical Brothers must be acutely aware of if Born in the Echoes is anything to go by. The guest vocalists (something that is common trait in their discography) are many and varied; from ‘the big names’ Q-Tip and Beck, to perhaps the lesser known Ali Love and Cate le Bon, it’s a simple and effective way of making sure an album doesn’t get to stodgy and homogenous. The music has the familiar driving base tones that we’ve all come to associate with The Chemical Brothers, but the high tones sound whining and try to grab our attention, although they never grate by outstaying their welcome. Their is still the slightly strange feeling of listening to these songs and thinking ‘I could do this!’ (you probably couldn’t), and although they have somewhat polished their act since their 90s releases Exit Planet Dust, Dig Your Own Hole and Surrender it still has that wonderful DIY feel that makes you feel empowered and warm.
Lyrics have never been the strong point of any Electronic act (in fact, you could argue that the whole point of Electronic music is to eschew the need for lyrics by replacing them with music that ‘speaks’ to you), and the same with this album. You wouldn’t call either Tom Rowlands or Ed Simons lyrical genii – but, in Electronic music, who can you? The lyrics are pretty non-offensive, that’s about as much praise as I’m willing to give.
Despite being part of the music scene for two decades The Chemical Brothers are still top of their particular tree. This album continues to show obvious songwriting progress and its content is as relevant as Dig Your Own Hole and Exit Planet Dust were back in 1997 and 1995 respectively.
‘Born in the Echoes’ is out now on Virgin EMI