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Second Glance: Do You Know Squarepusher?

“Love Will Tear Us Apart,” recorded by Joy Division shortly before the song’s author, Ian Curtis, hanged himself in his kitchen, is perfect for the obsessive. An inappropriately up beat and bright melody, paired with Curtis’s anti-sung vocal, all basic, drums hammered, synthesizer drone-y and constant, and the refrain, “love, love will tear us apart, again,” the only lyric to clearly rise above the mix. This song, a primordial “Bizzare Love Triangle” (by New Order, the band that Joy Division became after Curtis’ suicide), works like the best songs made of manic music paired with desperate sentiment. “Again,” Curits sings after a short pause. Fascination grows around that pause and… “again.” A mental state and a narrative emerge. “Us” “again.” Two people who fail to resist each other. Always in love and… not. “Love, love will tear us apart [pause] again.” A good tune to hum around the ex who fails to remain an ex but is best kept ex. Good for the pair in love who pretend otherwise even as they kiss. Ideal for the obsessive not only because “Love Will Tear Us Apart” begs repeat play, but because the song is about obsessive behavior.

And “Love Will Tear Us Apart” led me to the album Do You Know Squarepusher, or, rather, led me to Do You Know Squarepusher [pause] again, because, really, Do You Know Squarepusher led me to “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

When living in the dim suburbs of Boston, my mind tended to want and my radio stayed tuned to the low end of the FM dial, where something weird could be heard. As a boy, I listened to Dr. Demento’s syndicated show well past bedtime (in lieu of headphones, a pillow over the radio). Initially my interest was strictly for novelty songs, so I was only annoyed when the Doc played music that was weird but not (obviously) funny: John Zorn’s sirens and pots and pans or John & Yoko’s “Two Virgins,” etc. Though Weird Al forever has a home in my brain, novelty is just that, and once novelty wears off, substance is craved. Dial still at the low end, and still awake late, I came across mysterious broadcasts. Sound-collages made in-studio by the DJ, a mix of a familiar symphony with tape loops and sine tones, with astrophysics lectures and obscure 50s rock b-sides. Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North, tape pieces by Vladimir Ussachevsky, Glenn Branca’s electric guitar symphonies, etc., etc. I know the names now, but rarely did the DJs bother to run down a play list—these were not the broadcasts of Indie Rock nerds who need to tell you absolutely everything they knew about, say, the Joy Division 7″ of “Love Will Tear Us Apart (Factory Records, 1980). No, these nerds kept quiet.

Anonymity added to the music. Eventually, by putting faith in record-store clerks and other assorted music-heads, by following leads dropped in liner notes and music mags, I found my way to a lot of what I’d been hearing. Some of it was contemporary or modern classical music, the stuff of Kubrick soundtracks and 1970s minimalists. A lot of it was less formal, records made by bedroom circuit-benders, kids with a C-64, a screwdriver, and a soldering gun.  

The attraction to these sounds were planted not just by the mysterious low end, but by artists of wide appeal who knew, who incorporated the obscure into their work, tiny moments, often: the train whistle and the barking dog at the end of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the crickets and chimes that transition The Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money” into “Sun King,” the chant by the Magupa tribe at the end of Pink Floyd’s “Absolutely Curtains,” the skidding bass that starts off “Houses in Motion” by The Talking Heads, the first 44 seconds of U2’s Actung! Baby, etc., etc.. I craved those moments, was ready for albums full of them, and—slowly—I found those albums, many of which were electronic.

Electronic music is a very broad term. An electric guitar, played straight, doesn’t make electronic music but, rather, amplifies an acoustic sound. Electronic music was a puddle of goo when Edison cranked a wax cylinder and recorded his voice; it flippered its way onto land when the recording studio engineer became part of making albums; and it walked—hunched over—once Elvis left the building and the engineer fiddled around with knobs and reels, or once serious young composers were left in charge of university tape labs. What we’re moving toward is something more popular, nurtured by science fiction movie soundtracks, rock producers looking for a new sound, the Moog synthesizer and the Buchla Box, DJs seeking the best break beats, and yes, etc.

During the 1990s, the term electronica appeared, and with it a million little sub-genres, including Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) and—a term I prefer to IDM, but a term equally misleading—“laptop,” no CAP “L.” These terms aren’t especially useful. Is dance music stupid? The impulse behind a term like IDM is the same impulse that made “death to disco” such a popular slogan. Techno is all about beats per second (bps) and getting Ecstasy-addled kids onto the dance floor for raving. It’s endless and perfect for zoning out and just dancing. IDMers wanted to make clear that they were composing music more complex than that, music that can be listened to as well as danced to (though in some cases, music that might discourage a dancer). I once tried to start a party with an IDM record and was promptly shooed from the stereo. And “laptop?” That’s a little like calling rock “guitar.” Laptop is but one instrument that can be used to compose electronic music.

Unlike pop albums, IDM records rarely come with information about the musicians involved. IDM records just aren’t sold that way, not yet. Interviews focus on equipment rather than biography. Store windows aren’t plastered with life-size cutouts of the band. Concerts aren’t high-profile either, at least not here in the States. And so, even though we may have the name of the artist, the album title, indeed, the album itself, in our hands, on our turntable (so to speak), a kind of anonymity is maintained. Listening to an IDM record is like listening to those radio broadcasts during which no DJ emerged to provide a run down of what was played. All the listener needs to know is in the music.

Do You Know Squarepusher, an IDM album, messes with anonymity. The cover, designed by Alexander Rutterford, is a minimal graphic, a black square with a white shape inside—a big square with a little square crashed into its upper left corner—and the text: “do you know squarepusher.”1 Several tracks, including the cover “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” feature lyrics—a rarity in IDM—but in one case the lyrics are not Squarepusher’s and in the other two the lyrics are obfuscated, cut up, made to function like all the other processed bits of sound on the album. The album title, and the title track, suggest an answer might be gleaned from the album but the album offers only as much of an answer as all Squarepusher albums do—which is to say, Squarepusher is the music on the albums, period.

Do You Know Squarepusher is a seven-track, 30-minute album. 2 When Do You Know Squarepusher was released in 2002, reviewers generally dismissed it as a middling album with only one or two outstanding tracks. Typically, the first and title track was praised; often reviewers wrote something like what John Power wrote for musicOMH.com:

The album opens with the already familiar title track. It’s been doing the rounds as an untitled one-sided 12″ for a year, but still manages to send shivers down my spine. A twisted hyper-freaked take on two-step, r’n’b and drum n’ bass, it’s the best thing he’s ever done…

From that point, reviewers either damned the rest of the album—Todd Burns wrote, for Stylus, “Simply put, however, the rest of the album is… boring and bad”—or praise one or two other tracks, often “F-Train” and “Mutilation Colony.”

The cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” that concludes the album, was met alternately with mild praise, “The album ends with a fairly straight-forward cover of Joy Division’s haunting suicide hymn…. A grand production, the whispered vocals and ringing keyboards fill the track with a warmth missing from the metallic mass of [Squarepusher’s] work” (Ethan Covey, Dusted) and complete dismissal, “The album ends with a faithful (yet pointless) rendition of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear us Apart’” (Peter Marsh, BBC.CO.UK).

Perhaps because the title track was released ahead of the album, perhaps because the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” cover is such an oddity, or perhaps simply because the album is broken up into seven discreet tracks, no reviewer approached the album as a whole, but instead insisted on marking each track best, good, indifferent, or bad, and then summing the averages for a final grade.

Track one, “Do You Know Squarepusher” (no question mark), begins with a voice. The voice delivers three lines amid a band of electronic sound—a groan. What the voice says is unclear, but the gist is that Squarepusher is “your fucking daddy” and that he “makes all different styles of drum and bass.” His voice gives away nothing. He may be joking, or he may be seriously arrogant, or, as likely, a little of both. Knowing Squarepusher is difficult and will involve confrontation. (Drum and Bass, also called jungle, is another subgenre of electronic music, this focused on breakbeats and bass lines; Do You Know Squarepusher contains elements of drum and bass while being IDM.)

The first track reaches to the fourth, “Anstromm-Feck 4,” which begins with the same voice and the same band of electronic sound. What the voice says here is about as easy to parse, “Squarepusher’s gonna come and tear your fucking face off,” which, sonicly, he does: “Anstromm-Feck 4” is all about how many bps can be crammed into three and a half minutes, with a simple melody rushing alongside the beats. “Anstromm-Feck 4” is like the track “Do You know Squarepusher” made dense. “Do You Know Squarepusher,” though quick and dominated by beat, allows the melody more space, enjoys a little echo, and, overall, is fun. “Anstromm-Feck 4” is less giving.

Of the second track, “F-Train,” Todd Burns wrote:

A vaguely interesting distorted rap track follows “Do You Know Squarepusher”…. The lyrics don’t seem to be very important here, as it is constantly undercut by a stuttering rhythm, but the vocalist seems to be rapping about “parallel ports” and “polynomials.” It is a track with a great deal of promise, but falls on its face when put next to the title track and then grouped with the rest of the album.

Burns especially disliked the album, but his dismissal of the track as disappointing when compared to the first track is careless. When considered as part of a whole, “F-Train” fits perfectly after “Do You Know Squarepusher.” “During the final minutes of “Do You Know Squarepusher” there is a rap exactly like the rap that is “F-Train.”; that rap is resumed by “F-Train” and expanded, taken up like a jazz riff.” “F-Train” synchs the up beat of “Do You Know Squarepusher,” focuses instead on low tones and a quiet, stuttering beat, giving space for the lyrics. The lyrics are hard to understand, the words are chopped up to form part of the beat, though what can be heard is consistent with the music they serve—technical and dark:

Staircases previously seen only by the dead seem to persist in times of denied states yet returning to errors like fools locking doors… axis discrepancy indicates hexagons beyond control anomaly mutilation colony reflects no triangle energy components one and two tubular reality systems in question…

The lines beginning with “axis discrepancy” serve as a chorus, repeated three times during the course of “F-Train.” The phrase “mutilation colony” is the title of the sixth track on the album. Once again, tracks reach to other tracks on the album, or, all the tracks add up to one.

The third track, “Kill Robok,” transitions “F-Train” to “Anstromm-Feck 4,” starting slow like “F-Train,” then picking up at its mid-point.

“Mutilation Colony” is the longest track on the album and features no melody or rhythm. The first three minutes are subdued, then several piercing tones break up the piece, introducing harder sounds, though never becoming aggressive. Listening to “Mutilation Colony” is a lot like listening to the mysterious music I used to pick up on the radio, low on the FM dial, always late at night.

The previous track, track five, “Conc 2 Symmetriac,” sets the listener up for “Mutilation Colony” like the rap at the end of “Do You Know Squarepusher” that leads into “F-Train”: “Conc 2 Symmetriac” could be part of “Mutilation Colony.”

“Mutilation Colony” is the obvious last track, but instead the album ends with “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (again).

Reviewers describe Squarepusher’s music with phrases such as “sudden noisestorms,” “searing beat collage,” “discordant pops and pangs,” “breakbeat trainwrecks,” and, and, and, always choosing to emphasize how jarring Squarepusher’s music can be. Multiple, serious listens reveal patterns. Many of the harshest-seeming Squarepusher pieces—on this album that would be “Anstromm-Feck 4”—are so densely repetitive that the end of the track is more jarring than the track itself. But “Mutilation Colony” is patternless. To end with “Mutilation Colony” would be akin to ending The Beatles’ “White Album” with “Revolution 9” instead of “Goodnight.” “Mutilation Colony” is the least like the other tracks on Do You Know Squarepusher. Even “Conc 2 Symmetriac”—which could be part of “Mutilation Colony” (is part of “Mutilation Colony”)—is contained, clocking at a mere 1 minute, 23 seconds, whereas “Mutilation Colony” roams for nearly 11 minutes. Much more like, is “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Brian Wilson’s arrangement of the folk song “Sloop John B” makes it a Beach Boys song and Pet Sounds is unimaginable without “Sloop John B.” Squarepusher’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” seemed to me a gross mistake when I first heard Do You Know Squarepusher, but once I started to put the album together, after I heard Do You Know Squarepusher as a whole, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” [pause] again, became a Squarepusher track, and Do You Know Squarepusher became unimaginable without it. By obscuring lyrics (“Do You Know Squarepusher”), by writing lyrics that are obscure (“F-Train”), and by using someone else’s lyrics and music (“Love Will Tear Us Apart”), Squarepusher blocks the tendency to interpret song lyrics as biography, i.e., as an easy answer to the album’s titular question. No question mark: Do You Know Squarepusher.

Electronic music typically resists the traditional pop idiom, born, as it was out of the experiments of classical composers and engineers. IDM, laptop, and even some of the subgenres created for the dance floor (techno, house, drum and bass, etc.), tend to work best when given time—the effect demands that the music build and then change, build and change again. Do You Know Squarepusher features discreet tracks, but taken as a whole, that build and change effect becomes evident, and it becomes evident that the album was carefully arranged to have such an effect by its composer.

You may know that Squarepusher is a human named Tom Jenkinson, that he is an accomplished bass player. You may have Jenkinson’s photo (see his 2003 release Ultravisitor) or have seen him on the “BBC Culture Show.” Yet, Do You Know Squarepusher; the answer: no, but all the listener needs to know is in the music.

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Adam Golaski edits New Genre, a journal of science and horror fiction, and edits at Flim Forum, a press for experimental contemporary poetry. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Sleepingfish, LVNG, Essays & Fictions, Spinning Jenny, and Absent. He teaches writing at the Univesrity of Connecticut and literature at The New England Institute of Art.

1My copy of Do You Know Squarepusher came without any accompanying text; in many of the reviews of the album, mention is made of a booklet that includes a Squarepusher manifesto, as well as the lyrics to “F-Train.” Perhaps this booklet was included with review copies of the album, perhaps for the double LP, or perhaps my copy was packaged wrong at the factory. The insert with my copy is black to reveal a black on black design.

2 Another disk, Alive in Japan, a concert recording made in 2001 from the tour that followed Squarepusher’s previous album, Go Plastic, comes with Do You Know Squarepusher; some live versions of the cuts on Do You Know Squarepusher are included.