If there is an industry more conservative and less likely to take chances than popular music I'd be surprised. Now obviously I'm not talking about the independents who operate on the fringes of the business, but the big players for whom this is a multi-million dollar industry. They're about as liable to take a risk as Bush and Chenney are to be invited as guest speakers at an Amnesty International convention. It's why when you turn on your radio or listen to the top forty, you're only going to hear one or two songs played over and over again.
Oh there might be some variations - like the lyrics will change and the face behind the voice will be different - but pretty much everything is just a variation on a few themes. Don't be fooling yourself that the music industry has anything to do with artistic creation, it's all about making money, which means taking no chances and not messing with a formulae that works. Both of which are the antithesis of artistic creation, as taking risks and doing things differently are how an artist breaks new ground. When was the last time you heard an established popular musician or band do something radically different or even change their sound in a minor way?
While it's true there are some who may tinker with their sound, a quick survey of their careers will show it always stays within certain parameters. Only a very few have the courage and the ability to almost completely re-invent themselves and move their music in a completely new direction. Which is exactly what Iggy Pop, has done with his new release on EMI, Preliminaires. For instead of a release filled with his signature smash and destroy rock and roll that earned him the name "grandfather of punk", Preliminaires sounds like it sprung from the cafes and bistros of the Left Bank in Paris.
Which isn't surprising when you consider the fact that it was inspired by French novelist Michel Houellebecoq's 2005 novel The Possibility Of An Island. Iggy had been approached to write some songs for a documentary about the author's life and his attempt to direct the film of his book. However, what he ended up creating was a score for the novel itself, for, as he says in a press release announcing the disc, "I found the emotions from my reading transforming themselves into music".
You know you're in for something different from what you'd expect from Iggy right from the start as the disc opens with him singing the French standard "Les Feuilles Mortes (Automn Leaves) made famous by Edith Piaf and Yves Montand. While there's something initially disconcerting about hearing Iggy Pop singing in French, once you recover from the shock what's really amazing is how right it sounds. How much his voice suits this style of singing. For unlike what we call ballads in North America where the singer is expected to croon the lyrics in dulcet tones that display little or no real emotion, songs like "Les Feuilles Mortes" were written for voices with character; voices that might be a little rough around the edges but capable of expressing emotion.
However Iggy doesn't just stick to ballads over the course of Preliminaires, as there's the New Orleans jazz sounds of "King Of The Dogs" and even a throwback to a more familiar Iggy with "Nice To Be Dead". However that's the anomaly on this disc and its immediately followed by a cover of "Insensatez" ("How Insensitive") by Calos Jobim - an old bossa nova standard. It's a testimony to Iggy's capabilities as a singer, and the sincerity of his voice, that a tune that originally must have been more than a little saccharine, sounds so genuine when he does it. It's hard not to think of bad lounge singers when you hear a song like this, but no one will ever be able to accuse Iggy Pop of sounding like he's working a piano bar.
Iggy Pop has always had a very distinctive and powerful voice, developed over years of having to make himself heard above the guitars and drums of the hard rock he and the Stooges used to record and perform. Yet there was also always the suggestion of an expressive voice, which would occasionally show itself when the band played slower numbers. On Preliminaires though he's finally able to show off the full extent of his vocal prowess. What impressed me the most was the amount of character in his voice and just how expressive it is.
Whether it's the tongue in cheek humour of "King Of The Dogs", the longing of "I Want To Go To The Beach", or the sense of desolation he's able to convey on "Spanish Coast", you can't help but feel whatever it is he's trying to convey. On the latter, for instance, not only is the desolation of the scenery made clear, but so is the desolation of the song's protagonist merely by how he modulates the tone of his voice. He uses his ability to sing on the lower end of the scale to good advantage here, but it's not just a matter of singing low and sounding gloomy, as he's genuinely able to express the emptiness that lies at the heart of the song.
It's not often that pop musicians with long and established careers will take the chance of recording an album radically different from almost anything they've done before. While there are songs on Preliminaires that one can identify with Iggy Pop's early career, the majority of the material on this disc is completely unlike anything you've ever heard him do before. However, even better, is the fact that it's some of the best music I've heard from him in ages. It's far more sophisticated than anything I've heard him do before either musically, emotionally, or intellectually. Yet, at the same time he retains the energy and power that he's always been famous for. Only now he's narrowed his focus so that it's all channelled into the emotional content of the music which makes the material all the more captivating. Preliminaires is the work of a mature artist who's not afraid to take chances, and as a result this is one of the most rewarding albums put out in North America this year to date.
(Originally posted June 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.