Ever the ones to do things on their own terms, No Age have surpassed themselves with their latest effort, An Object. It’s not just an album, but an actual work of art. Not only have Dean Spunt and Randy Randall written, recorded and produced An Object, they’ve also made and assembled the packaging. There’s nothing striking about having to put in that kind of hard work if you’re in a fledgling band – it’s pretty much standard. This however, is No Age’s fourth album and third for Sub Pop, and of course things are entirely different once a band has got themselves signed. For them to be taking back what appears to be complete control really is something of a statement.
Settling down to review a series of MP3s rather makes that statement redundant. Or does it? What is it that people buy albums for? Is it for the artwork and the packaging, or is it just the music – which in the digital age, doesn’t even require a physical format? Their label claims that No Age has taken on the “role of manufacturer, artist and musician until the roles trip on themselves and the individual parts lose their distinct meanings, demanding to be considered as a whole”. All of which is very commendable, and reaffirms the idea of an album as an artistic statement, an object, rather than just a collection of tunes.
As such, An Object is more than just some music on a “thing”, it’s a method of connecting the band with their listeners, and keeping that line of communication as unsullied and direct as possible. However, if it’s just the tunes that people are after, then they’ve rather wasted their time. Strip the packaging of the object away and all that’s left is the music, surely the thing that a band should be concentrating on most. The ideas behind this new album may be noble, but the fundamental reason for purchasing An Object remains the music, not the object.
Ans an album, An Object finds No Age in distinctly more ambiguous mood than their highly acclaimed previous opus, Nouns. Now they’re less direct and outright punk in their approach, this is an album that feels as if it could have come straight from the early days of post-punk. No Ground dispatches with drums altogether (and thus half of No Age), relying on the rhythm of the guitars to provide the pulse of the song. Eventually drums do make an appearance on second track I Won’t Be Your Generator, but they’re placed way back in the mix and are far from the forceful presence that usually populates No Age’s records. The song itself is an ambient pop-thrum that likes of which Sonic Youth were popping out around the time of Daydream Nation, only not quite as devastating.
Album highlight C’Mon Stimmung harks back to the band’s punkier output, hinting at early hardcore and giving the album a much needed burst of energy. Circling With Dizzy meanwhile sounds like a headbutting contest between Sham 69 and Thurston Moore. Defector/ed takes Joy Division’s bleak and stripped back approach as its influence. Once again there are no drums, just a simplistic guitar pulse and constantly shifting tapestry of noise.
The lack of drums on large chunks of An Object initially gives the feeling that the album is lacking an anchor, but when the band explore the shimmering noise cosmos of closing track Commerce, Comment, Commence they sound expansive and exquisite, something that their more forthright punk approach can’t hope to achieve. When they meld the two, as they do on Running From A Go-Go, the effect can be jaw dropping, but getting the mix is a tricky business. The throwaway tumble of Lock Box for example creates a yearning for No Age’s more ambient and less focused sounds. An entire album concentrating on that approach would be quite something.