Talk About Body
Release date: 2011-02-14
Before we get started on this review, Soundblab would just like to take issue with NME's lazy, woefully clueless and latently misogynist review of MEN's Talk About Body, in which the band's music was compared to Chicks on Speed. Here's one reason this is a dumb comparison: Chicks on Speed, famously, did not play guitars. Guitars are all over Talk About Body like a sex rash, varying from spindly, intricate melody lines on 'Credit Card Babie$' to full-on powerchord assault on 'My Family', to the almost hair-metal solo that closes 'Simultaneously'. Just reaching for the first group of shouty, synth-weidling girl-punks you can think of and chucking out a comparison is very lazy and not a little sexist.
MEN don't sound much like Chicks on Speed. In fact, they don't even sound that much like Le Tigre, singer and all round queer icon JD Samson's previous-kinda-sorta-still-going band. Sure, Talk About Body looks to the party sounds of Tom Tom Club and The B-52s just like Le Tigre did, but that only forms one component of this band's sound. The big difference here is dub. Several tracks on Talk About Body source the dub-disco experiments of post-punk outfits like PiL, Scritti Politti and Delta 5 for inspiration. Far from being a perfect pop product, there are rough edges, empty spaces and murky sounds aplenty on Talk About Body.
Le Tigre fans may also be surprised by how jaundiced and aggressive Samson sounds on much of this record. Far from being a glowing, hirsute embodiment of queer utopianism, she sounds like an artist with a serious axe to grind. When she howls, "My gift to you is a mercy fuck!" on first track 'Life's Half Price', she sounds more like prime smack-raddled Courtney Love than perky Kathleen Hanna. You can dance to most of Talk About Body, sure, but don't think just because you're dancing Samson is letting you off the hook.
Talk About Body is also a very smart album. The band has been accused of didactic sloganeering in some reviews. Let's get one thing straight (pun very much intended): if you are a transgender or queer kid growing up in Buttfuck, Nowhere, miles from the nearest source of understanding, lyrics like, "Radical surgery/ Prosthetic sex/ We made this world/ and we are asking your best", from 'Who Am I', will sound like anything but empty rhetoric. Lyrics like that might just make you feel like you're not alone, and give you the strength to carry on.
However, what's great about the lyrical content MEN deliver here is its willingness to acknowledge the complexity of the subjects they dwell on. Take 'Credit Card Babie$'. This single, dealing with the aspirations and difficulties of gay parents, is even more pertinent since the birth of Elton John's son Zachary and the resulting, predictable media furore. Samson takes a look at the issue from multiple perspectives, expressing conflicting emotions. One minutes she's coldly rapping, "Why don't you adopt/ borrow someone's cock/ call up the bank?", the next she's lost in a sweet revere about the joys of queer-feminist parenting: "Raise our kids/ radical politics/ Sontag in the crib". It's a funny, knowing moment, all the more effective because it sums up exactly the kind of conversations gay couples in the West now feel able, entitled even, to have.
Elsewhere, it's all about the tunes. 'Off Our Backs' is an awesomely funky pop tune, while 'If You Want Something' and 'Rip Off' both tap the rubber-limbed disco of Arthur Russell (whose alter ego Loose Joints even gets an oblique namecheck on 'Credit Card Babie$'). These are expertly, inventively constructed party tunes. The only things which let the album down a little are the song order - the five minute-plus rant of 'Life's Half Price' is perhaps not the best opening tune - and a production job which sometimes lacks clarity.
Ultimately, if you're not plugged into the world-view Talk About Body is steeped in, you might just hear a better-than-average alt-pop album. Fine, but why not take a moment to really absorb the lyrical content and see how it might relate to your own life? If you can't manage that much, well, here's JD on 'Rip Off' with another message for you: "Aren't you/ aren't you/ at the centre of the world?" As the slogan goes: check your privilege.