When The Chap announced its plans to release an album of “NON-IRONIC super straight pop songs,” it was hard to take the news at face value. After all, the U.K. group has spent the majority of its decade-long career sending up the conventions, affectations and excesses of “straight” pop with an approach that’s part social satire, part crazed meta-pop bricolage.
Consider “Proper Rock,” from 2008’s Mega Breakfast. Belting like a concussed Freddy Mercury, Chap singer Johannes von Weizsäcker wryly proclaims “Art, art, art don’t make no rave, Dave,” and demands “proper songs for real folk.… Proper songs about girls and clubbing!” It’s a fussy, hyper-referential pastiche of dance beats, stuffy electro-acoustic instrumentation and campy daubs of studio gloss, swathing its subject in layers of ironic detachment and self-reflexive cleverness. The scare quotes are palpable. There and elsewhere, The Chap are less interested in writing “proper songs” and more interested prying them apart and rebuilding them, holding up a funhouse mirror to pop’s escapist pleasures and gleefully warping them into a new form that lands somewhere between bemused homage and absurdist critique.
We Are Nobody, The Chap’s fifth, latest and allegedly irony-free album, contains no proper songs about girls and clubbing. However, it’s fair to call it the band’s most straightforward work to date. The album is not so much devoid of irony as devoid of the explicitly goofy gestures elsewhere in The Chap discography: guttural squawks, garish abuse of the Vocoder, Shakira quotes.
With fewer distractions, it’s easier to appreciate how much the Chap have going for them beyond sardonic wit. When they’re not just trying to be clever, they’re genuinely smart, sophisticated songwriters with a surprisingly dark outlook. “Rhythm King,” “Talk Back” and “Painkiller” throb with melancholic paranoid-android funk, suggesting the pleasures of The Chap’s un-pop mirror world can be just as seductive as this one.
But without the buoyancy of silliness, We Are Nobody tends to sink in to a chilly postmodern malaise. “Talk Back” unfurls a hypnotic, circular chorus declaring, “Everyone, all the same, all the time…” The titular track follows in a similar vein with its identity-dissolving mantra, “I am you, you are we, we are nobody.” The characters of this world aren’t buffoonish art snobs and party animals. They’re lonely, anonymous and lost, and The Chap don’t claim to be above the fray.
At times, the band’s experiment in sincerity is an awkward fit. Part of the difficulty lies in their consistently ultra-dry delivery. It’s perfect for caricaturing pop banalities and upper-crusty social mores, but not so adept at conveying honest, unguarded sentiment. It’s as if they’ve inhabited the pose for so long, they can’t quite bring themselves to be unironically unironic. The gestures feel stiff and constrained, almost parodically bleak. The pervasive gloom can spill over into easy nihilism. “Look at the Girl” is a twinkly little number whose twist ending starkly contrasts with the deadpan declaration that “she creates her own destiny.” Compared to the more nuanced anxieties expressed elsewhere in the album, the rug-yanking seems needlessly heavy-handed.
At its best, though, We Are Nobody nails an uneasy mood that feels like a natural evolution of the Chap’s acerbic wit: waiting for a punchline that never arrives.