Múm - "Dancing Behind My Eyelids" (Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy)
This is among the dullest albums of the year. This does not mean it is simply boring, and it’s not meant to foreshorten critical discussion; locating the sources of Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy's particular blandness is a purposeful activity. In the light of recently reinvigorated discussion about indie, race and class, it’s a particularly relevant one. New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones’s article on whiteness and indie rock is the catalyst of a discussion in which Múm are implicated by their innocuousness. The piece attempts to explain the changes in indie rock that have, over the last 15 years, been more felt than understood. The first substantial rejoinder to the piece comes from Carl Wilson (author of the 33 1/3 imprint’s book on Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love), and takes issue with Frere-Jones’ ambitious and provocative thesis inasmuch as it seems to ignore the role of social class in shaping these arguments. The dialectic is entertaining, calling up those things in culture that are most difficult to talk about at length without running into numerous refusals to accept the terms of debate. Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy’s particular relevance to this debate derives from the moments in which they are called upon to supply what the music lacks. There are some for which the album will resonate deeply, but also a fair number who will be exhausted by the claims the music attempts to make. For the purpose of this review, the following quote from Wilson’s piece will suffice to put the album in its broader context: “[indie rock] is the music of young ‘knowledge workers’ in training, and that has sonic consequences.”
The consequences are not always dull, and Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy is as enjoyable at points as the music it’s clearly drawing from. “Blessed Brambles” opens the album with the kind of decorous, cheeky melody mostly associated with Aphex Twin, sputtering drum programming, and a lazy stab at the violent, creepy childishness that Animal Collective did on Feels. (If the cover art’s not a convincing enough Henry Darger pastiche, here’s a sample lyric: “Let’s kiss the boys who pee in mud…let your crooked hands be holy.”) Still, to get to what ultimately makes the album a draining experience, one hardly needs to scratch the songs’ surface: “Guilty Rocks,” an instrumental track, is built around a few organ notes that shoot for Erik Satie and end up in an active-lifestyle deodorant commercial. Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy fails to measure up to its own moment because the songs are, at worst and at best, little more than an accumulation of mannerisms and conceits to their presumed audience, lacking internal coherence. There’s built-in expectation that’s particularly legible on weak tracks like “A Little Bit, Sometimes,” one which puts the onus on the listener to overcome a song’s foundational incoherence. This “you know what I’m talking about” moment crops up every few minutes on the album; at times, the album feels a bit like content-karaoke.
Múm has never been the sort of band to inspire ardent fandom, a tendency borne out by the fact that most reviews focus on pitting this album, the band’s fourth, against their début and perceived high-water mark, 2000’s Yesterday Was Dramatic — Today Is OK. The album remains a touchstone while follow-ups Finally We Are No One (2002) and Summer Make Good (2004) have found reviewers treading tepid water; Yesterday was perfectly timed, one of the marquee releases that helped midwife electronica as an acceptable texture within emotionally grandiose indie rock. Electronica is an unsatisfying aggregate term in the same way that indie is: unacceptable in its broadness and the way it muffles history, it’s also all but unavoidable. Much of the problem with Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy arises from this; the fact that only half of the group’s founding members remain is insignificant when one considers that the band’s moves seem to recapitulate, albeit unsuccessfully, the career arc of a group like Animal Collective.
Múm’s career works as an index of indie rock in the young century; having come into prominence as a post-rock act, they aren’t constitutionally incapable of keeping up with indie rock's shift away from that genre’s aesthetics, but they do seem incapable of moving beyond the nostalgic, self-exoticizing mode. These qualities alone don’t guarantee an album’s failure, and neither does the band’s assumption of a common measure of experience; the instruments, the melodies, and the structure of these songs fail in that they seem to exist only as cues for the listener to call up prefabricated meaning from this homogeneity of experience.