In their awesome 90s run, The Chemical Brothers revitalised The Beatles’ Revolver for the techno age and hence turned their newfound genre, big beat, into every rock n’ roll fan’s favourite type of electronic music. Psychedelia, Kraftwerk, Britpop, folk, hip-hop, and many other influences were thrown into their mix with the carelessness of youth. That carelessness was always going to abandon them, regardless of the commercial prospects of electronic music. Maintaining a lifelong career in anything is so damn hard, and you have to admire The Chemical Brothers for making a go at it. But the fact is that they haven’t made a good album for many years, and they haven’t made a great one since 1999’s Surrender.
No Geography is a letdown, but not from its opening track. “Eve of Destruction” isn’t as foreboding as its title might suggest: propelled by funky bass and vocal soul samples, with fun keyboard and synths zipping in and out, it’s actually a somewhat uplifting opener. It’s packed with creativity, and creativity is literally the opposite of destruction.
Next is a track called “Bango”, without the Bingo or any other discernible relationship to Basement Jaxx. Again, the bass is mixed loud and in-your-face, and the Brothers use this as too much of a crutch to lean on: take it out and the production falls over in a clumsy mess. Which is to say, really, that “Bango” is not all that danceable. Listening to it in my living room, my ass remained firmly glued to the sofa.
The title track is a bit of a slog but, as they say on the next one, “Got to Keep On”. Got to keep on what, exactly? The Brothers let us in on the secret: “Gotta keep on making me high.” Again, the dense mania of earlier Chemical Brothers albums is missed, as drum machines, vocal samples and most of all the bass keep themselves busy but don’t exactly work up any delirious sweat of inspiration.
The sluggishness of “Gravity Drops” makes you disappointedly wonder for the first time if there won’t be any classic Chemical Brothers material on this album. Coming mid-way, it doesn’t manage to dramatically change the game like “Setting Sun” did at around the same point on Dig Your Own Hole, or even better as the simply amazing “The Sunshine Underground” did on Surrender. No, the Brothers get ponderous instead of ablaze in a sunbeam of ideas, exploring the realm of metaphysics on the next track “The Universe Sent Me” with a dull crawl of a beat and not a single memorable hook to kick its ass back to earth and into gear.
The disappointment that’s set in by this stage is partially alleviated by “We’ve Got to Try”, a squelchy-synth acidhouse laugh-a-minute production with a memorable vocal sample and a heavier beat to keep your attention. It does make you worry, however, that “big beats” are all the Brothers have left. The slower, less heavy tracks were some of the best on their early albums (“Chico’s Groove”, “Where Do I Begin”), after all. Whereas these days, they have to hit you hard over the head with a beat in order to sound interesting.
“Free Yourself” is… well, you can guess what it’s about. The problem is, the music is not inspirational enough to help you feel, or at least overlook, the clichéd message. “Bring me dance” says the woman on the track, which is what you’ll have been thinking all the way through the album.
Then comes their best idea on the album: “MAH” uses the most famous quote from the 1976 film Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more”, and turns it into a hook not quite as indelible as some of their past efforts, but it comes close. It’s instantly catchy, weird, and you can’t believe nobody’s come up with the idea before, all at the same time. It’s worth a stream or two.
Unfortunately, “Catch Me I’m Falling” brings the mood down again, an unsoulful dirge packed with soul samples that all fail to catch fire and take the song into lift-off.
Where to go now for The Chemical Brothers? Is the title of that last track a plea for help? Aimless and distracted, if very well mixed, their latest album is the sound of a further falling from greatness.