The truth will set you free. At least that’s what Jesus told his followers according to John 8:32. I think Jesus was talking about a capital T kind of Truth, like as in “I’m the son of God, so if you believe that Truth you will be free” kind of thing. Which is interesting because that phrase is used in all kinds of situations and is generally applied to a more lowercase t brand of truth, that telling the truth and/or the truth behind your actions will exonerate you from those who try to make up crap about you. Which is pretty good too, I suppose, and it isn’t a bad life philosophy, even if it’s one that pretty much none of us can live every moment of every day. Sometimes you need a little lie so you can just get by. Why? Because lies are more flexible.
I started Life in the Vinyl Lane back in September of 2012, and every year I’ve done a Top 5 list of my picks for the year’s best releases. In 2014 Icelandic electro-powerhouse Gusgus pulled down the top spot with the briljant “Mexico”. If I’d started a year earlier I can 100% guarantee you that “Arabian Horse” would have won top honors for 2011. Will they be able to repeat four years later with their latest effort, Lies Are More Flexible? 2018 opened strong with killer releases by Dirty Sidewalks and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, plus there’s another 10 full months of music on the horizon before I need to make that decision. But one thing I know for sure is that Lies Are More Flexible will be part of the conversation, because it’s that damn good.
My personal history with Gusgus goes back to 2009 when I saw them live in Reykjavik and subsequently fell in love with the dark, brooding “24/7”, a marathon six-track double album comprised of layer after layer of moroseness. Since then we’ve seen ’em live another half dozen or so times and it feels like Lies Are More Flexible finds the band, now down to just the duo of Biggi Veira and Daníel Ágúst, coming full circle. While Arabian Horse (2011) and Mexico (2014) introduced additional singers to the group with all the complexity and interplay that entails, their latest effort takes them back to their dance roots. This was evident during their 90 minute live show at the Reykjavik Art Museum last November, a performance that was more live dance club than it was concert. Don’t get me wrong, those other two albums were plenty danceable; but they were also more structured with performers filling different roles and feeding off of one another. But Lies… Lies… this is one man with his beats (Biggi) and another with his voice (Daníel), and they aren’t beholden to anyone.
The mood is set right out of the gate with the album’s first single, “Featherlight”, a deep house groover with slowly building synths and soaring, ethereal vocals, a track that would be right at home on any of the Gusgus releases over the past decade. If there’s a universal sound around which Gusgus orbits, this is its near-perfect template. The following number, “Don’t Know How To Love”, appears to further establish this as the album’s direction (♣). The first couple of listens had me thinking that the backing vocals were done by former Gusgus member Högni, but it wasn’t until I checked the credits that I realized that singer is none other than John Grant. While the beats are solid, it’s Daniel’s trademarked pitch and timing changes to the repetitive chorus Don’t know how to love that define its direction, conveying the emotion almost exclusively with the sound of his voice instead of the meaning of the words themselves. No one does this as well as Daníel Ágúst. No one.
Things take bit of a left turn with “Fireworks”. Gusgus is not a group that spends much time looking backwards – their live shows are generally based on their most recent material, with “Add This Song” (2009) the one older track that consistently makes the set list. But “Fireworks”… this is a blast from the past. It just oozes with the influences of 2002s “Attention”, a retro Gusgus number if there ever was one and a bit of a shock to the system. That’s followed by “Lifetime”, which offers more of a blend of the old (synths) and new (beats), and now my compass is totally off – I have no idea what to expect next.
Next up is “No Manual” and we’re treated to yet another change-of-pace, this time delivering a deep house instrumental to our ears, something very reminiscent of fellow countrymen Kiasmos with its rich textures and layers accompanied by electronic strings to give it a modern electro-classical feel. And then the title track kicks in and I feel like I’m rollin’ with Crockett and Tubbs in a convertible sports car with the top down, tearing along a deserted road in Florida doing about 90 mph in the nighttime blackness, all hot and humid, the road only lit by the headlights. The deep bass keeps the steady pace, the mid range bounces around to change the mood, and the synths on top replace the vocals on this, the album’s second consecutive instrumental jam.
Bringing things to a close are the un-Gusgus-like “Towards A Storm”, a 48 second field recording of sorts that should feel out of place but somehow doesn’t, followed by yet another instrumental dance-floor-ready burner, “Fuel”. (♠) Biggi has always had a significant impact on Gusgus’ overall sound, but his near-complete ownership of the second half of Lies Are More Flexible definitively puts his stamp on this new era for the band.
I’ve been trading texts with my friends Tristen, Andy, and Norberto about Lies Are More Flexible, and while all of us agree it’s outstanding, it’s the second half that generates the most disagreement with some of us preferring these vocal-less tracks and others wishing there was more Daniel. As much as I love Daniel, I’m in the latter camp – the beats and synths are killer on those later tracks, and that hint of old-school action puts a smile on my face.
Lies Are More Flexible isn’t exactly the album I was expecting of Gusgus, but that’s part of their beauty – they’re always evolving. Holistically it feels more like an EP (the instrumental second half) and a couple of 12″ singles, one more contemporary and one more retro. However, Biggi provides enough underlying consistency in the low end to hold all the parts together in a cohesive whole. I’ve been playing it a ton and I expect it’s going to remain in heavy rotation for much of 2018 if not longer. I’m not sure it’ll make it to #1 on my year-end list, but a spot somewhere in the Top 5 feels almost assured.
(♣) A feint of sorts, as it turns out. Not an outright lie, but more of a misdirection. But hey, lies are more flexible, so…
(♠) There’s a hint of Daniel’s voice floating around the edges of parts of “Fuel”, not singing lyrics but instead making vocalizations with an instrumental quality to them.
– Jeff Obermeyer