Ben McCarthy and Lisa J. Smith, formerly of Archivist (see my earlier review), have formed a new project called Pale Eyes, producing a debut album called sweatshop. It contains songs for the new age of anxiety, in which we feel the claustrophobia of globalization, and the disgust of complicity. Frequently confronting you with ugly feelings, Pale Eyes produce electronic violence; and broken hip-hop, time of fractured joint, when it won’t be long before we all come tumbling down. Their music and lyrics also perform a vivisection on the heaving mass of human need, and its peculiar anatomy of melancholy. sweatshop is comparable, and every bit as important and striking, as The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. Pale Eyes’ debut is about futility, but also about facing up to that pointlessness. The heavy use of sampling and synth processing stitches together a whole from the disparate, leaving frayed edges that threaten to unravel, embodying the failure to repeat.
The opening track “waves & radiation” is a plunderphonic sound collage of tension, starting with a metronome and ending with “if I didn’t have my art, I would be madder than I am.” It is musically reminiscent of Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” and neatly introduces you to the ideologies working within the entire record, including memories of real protest, and the mental and emotional implications of our current world order.
It’s followed by “kltr kma,” the title of which makes me think of Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma.” It features an earworm chorus, and the breaks mirror the cracking of the pretence of the human pose. McCarthy alternates between rapid-fire wordplay and elastic, cyclical vocals that ply your brain, while Lido Pimienta moans behind him in a fractious, urgent way that reminds me of Sue Denim. McCarthy sings:
These bloody needs the body’s fee;
you must be hungry just to be.
It was the sun that taught your lungs to breathe
for a mesh of metaphor with a mouth for the meat. . . .
So take the fist and take this kiss,
and take our common helplessness,
cause the very very body you resist
is the flesh upon which all this subsists.
Pales Eyes continue to interrogate this schizophrenic human reality that belies the figurative sense of a universal, whole humanity in songs such as “empathy exhaustion (also sprach Sarahthustra)” and “the consolation of action.” A collaboration with McCarthy’s sister, Sarah (who I assume to be the Sarah of the final track “Sarah says”), “empathy exhaustion” is all sharp dissonance tied together with a weaving double helix of a melody line, carried ethereally by Pimienta. The lyrics are begging for release from the fatigue of a debt-laden, neoliberal existence, cleverly tying moral debt to the general debtfare lives of this generation. This track is followed by “the consolation of action,” which takes its title from John Gray’s Straw Dogs, an excellent argument against the idea of Humanism, and its unwavering belief in redemption through progress. (Of course, Pale Eyes is not the first band to draw on Gray’s work; Vanilla Swingers crafted a concept album inspired by it, and the Manic Street Preachers have also referenced Gray in recent years.) In this track, as in Gray’s book, there’s a friction and fear of letting go of the “need” for action and changing the world. The idea is one that I feel is at the crux of Gray’s thesis, one which I return to again and again: “The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly.” The attempt to reconcile this possibility for a new paradigm with our own reality leads to additional feelings of lack and guilt. The sacred profanity of this wrecked psychological space blurs into poetry:
wake up the grace has fled
amplified daily dread
first day of the rest of your life
breaking across your head
have you been misinformed?
do you really not know what you do?
what were you crying for?
sweatshop livestock auto-tune?
Pimienta’s vocals are primal and fragile as the minimal sampled background sputters and clatters behind her. Lagging with the weight of conflicting culpabilities, McCarthy languidly sums up the earlier verses with the brilliant phrase “porno kingdom cum,” and then debt anxiety creeps in again as he follows it with “we cannot afford this wealth.”
There are more efforts to ease this cognitive dissonance and its discontents. “figure/ground” is achingly beautiful and soulful, easily oscillating between a foreground of smooth woodwind sound and a background of stuttering, glitchy beats liberated from Radiohead. Trapped between order and entropy, McCarthy’s vocals are striving yet dropping at the end of each line, lapping at and slowly eroding his own footing. In “philosophka,” access, and the choices it presumably offers, only succeeds in smothering you with the ghosts of the “what if” and the circling paranoia of always missing something. Embattled by expectations, McCarthy quietly sings, “Spoiled for choice don’t make me free, this is a necessity.”
In “little rain,” apocalyptic fervor dissipates into an honest message to a future generation, in this particular case, an infant son. McCarthy’s vocals are soothing in their melancholic glissandos, as the synth sounds drip and drop, rolling like tears from beneath a blindfold. It’s a refreshing conception of “the child,” resisting the simple purity/innocence/hope for the future trope; McCarthy sings, “I’m disinclined to see you for the dream you are, little boy, for I know what dreams can become.” The further lament of “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies” spins through slices of distortion as it bisects, dissects, intersects, intertexts, sexes, vexes. There is only a superficial catharsis. The self-aware-monster-inside motif, similar to that of Kevin Barnes’s more recent material, does not provide relief or a way forward. “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies,” along with the track “Trust,” warps Marvin Gaye references into a brittle rendering of passionate resignation.
Rather than a desensitizing lyrical crutch, the extended use of “fuck” on five out of the eleven songs displays a nuanced polyvalence, placing carnality on a parallel plane with ruin, hopelessness, frustration, manipulation, and hostility. You get the feeling that we are all being endlessly violated by circumstance, and that sex and intimacy are just other parts of the broken system. Many of the comedown moments in sweatshop feel like coiling up in an empty, post-coitus position after being consentingly fucked by capitalism.
sweatshop sounds like inner war, the struggling and juggling under the weight of hypocritical, perhaps nonsensical, guilt. It asks the question of how we can truly protest, especially when the technologies that allow for pockets of protest to form around the world are the same that devastate the environment, exploit others’ labour, and depend on the corporate states. As we all move toward immaterial labour, playbour, affective labour, etc., which is often overlooked in terms of capitalistic value, we are ever more implicated. At the heart of this first question, is another one: What do we truly “need”? Perfection is impossible, happiness is temporary, and progress is a myth. Is seeing the world rightly enough? I’m inclined to think so, especially as I see despair as more productive than joy, and depressive people as having a firmer grip on reality than anyone else. When all of the manufactured stabilizers, like the nation state, religion, science, time, Humanism, and monogamous relationships, are removed, there could perhaps be an opening for a new model; however, as sweatshop intimates, we will probably make new fictions to cope. At the same time that so many British musicians are exploring the failed utopias of modernism and social welfare, the Canadian Pale Eyes have moved in a different, less nostalgic, way to try to take up the same challenges. They have also succeeded in penetrating my general numbness, making me feel bad, and then making me wonder why I should feel that way.
sweatshop is released on August 6 via Bandcamp. See the Pale Eyes website for further details and updates.