Insutrial Strength Cliché
In Steven Spielberg's otherwise-pretty-awesome dystopian sci-fi shrine to Stanley Kubrick, AI, there's a really embarrassing scene at a grotesque carnival, in which its ‘scariness’ is symbolised by the band playing: Ministry. For aging filmmakers, apparently, 1990s industrial music is the sound of a terrifying future, not a dated past.
Apparently, M.I.A. —terrorist-chic pin-up turned Grammy-crashing superstar Maya Arulpragasam— shares the same beliefs. Her third album, Maya (typeset as /\/\/\Y/\ in annoying visual approximation of her name), is a concept album about the terrifying new-millennial surveillance state, in which social networks are bankrolled by the CIA and your every search engine entry is used as personality profiling. And what says terrifying technological future like distorted electric guitars over pounding, mechanical beats?
The production —largely by uninspiring English beatmaker Rusko— isn't all industrial clatter, there's also the hydraulic bass shifts and sinuous synths synonymous with radio-ready R&B; not to mention plenty of pitch-shifted vocals and ripples of digital sheen. If the narrative was as simple as Arulpragasam authoring a commercial-crossover album, that'd be one thing. But the album is her least friendly, most charmless set yet; its dour, often-dirge-like songs lack the melodies and energy to equate to a genuine pop album.
The saturated palette of her two previous albums (2005's awesome Arular and 2007's breakout Kala) is nowhere to be seen; the high, bright, tropicalist sound of, say, "Sunshowers" replaced by, in one of the few highlights of Maya, "Born Free"'s Suicide samples, Sepultura drums, and heavily-distorted "I've got something to say" soapboxing. Whilst there is "It Takes A Muscle," a breezy piece of digital dancehall helmed by elsewhere-conspicuously-absent producer Diplo, it's a veritable island in a sea of blunt, aggressive, unimpressive cuts.
The stark change in sound —from colorful to dark, liberated to cluttered— is sadly symbolic. When Kala found Arulpragasam taking her pan-genre, poly-cultural approach on the road, recording in far-flung locals from Liberia to Jamaica, it was a product of her created persona: M.I.A. an outgoing, outreaching artist out to build bridges between the club and the township, the first world and the third; her music bringing life wherever it went, bringing to light repressed ethnicities and poisoned political situations to anyone who listened.
That outgoing Arulpragasam is nowhere to be found on Maya. Instead, it's an album of cloistered claustrophobia; sounding for all the world like the singer, bunkered down in a big house in Los Angeles (ultimate city of anti-social schisms), is retreating from the world around her.
I'm not ready to write her off as some princess held prisoner by paranoia, holed up in fear that the US government is out to get her. All those themes Maya hopes to articulate —a desire to remain a free citizen in modern life's locked-down digital-grid— are completely ignored and underexplored by artists. The change in the way people live their lives has arguably changed more in the last five years than in any other five-year period in human history, and yet albums addressing this are few and far between.
Arulpragasam should be praised for doing so, but you can't. Her delivery neuters the power of the message. Many critics will portray Maya as an ideological misstep when, in reality, it's anything but. The problem with the album is not its politics. It's its music.
Record Label: Interscope
Release Date: July 13, 2010