Doldrums - The Air Conditioned Nightmare
A problem common to all writers facing their terrifying confrontation with the abyss is to avoid the much-needed soul soothing until after the experience’s detail has been taken down. You can’t just talk about anxiety. It must accompany you in order for it to properly infuse the art work. You can rescue yourself from the decision to suicide or choose a lesser life after the work is complete. But first, the art. As Henry Miller said in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the book from which the album takes its title, “America is no place for an artist: to be an artist is to be a moral leper, an economic misfit, a social liability. A corn-fed hog enjoys a better life than a creative writer, painter or musician.” It’s this anxious sense of being out of place that Airick Woodhead invites us toward, and subsequently sets himself up for missing.
So you’re left with a talented artist having an experience, who tells us what to expect and then doesn’t live up to his own expectations. If we didn’t know what The Air Conditioned Nightmare – Doldrums eschews the hyphen – was supposed to be about, it would be a better album; but only marginally. Unfortunately Woodhead uses the music to evoke a sense of anemic safety which is not only the antithesis of the fear he wants to engulf us, it’s a childish response to the cliff edge upon whose precipice we all teeter when conscious. To be anxious in our contemporary cities is to be anxious, and later we forget, sublimate or fill the void with belief, but you don’t want to hinge the musical moment on that fearful retreat. Tracks such as “Loops” and “Industry City”, one about the terminal circular horror of frustrated relationships and the other an examination of technological dependence, problematically insert their sampling as reassurance, virtually becoming part of the problem Woodhead is riling against. This doesn’t result in anxiety; it acts as a negation of his primary goal, the effect reminding one of a teenager who longs to be an independent adult one day who then becomes a clinging child to that which has already passed the next.
This turns into something of an intentional commentary in tracks like the last “Closer 2 U” and “Video Hostage”, which combine the best of his offerings under a cloud of fogged, slightly disturbed noise, eschewing a post-disco aesthetic for something more enormous that almost sounds like those great Pet Shop Boys anxiety-ridden tracks from the mid to late 80s, but enhanced by the decades of sound since. These are the tracks that feel more attuned to the titular and lyrical trajectory, absorbing then eclipsing its influences. As with Doldrums’ first album Lesser Evil, the Radiohead/Yorke homage still leavens, but interestingly it’s when Woodhead is trying to free himself of these agonies of influence that the album falters.
These movements away from history’s impact happen best when Woodhead is at his most manic, in tracks like the opener “HOTFOOT” and “Blow Away” which uses the album’s title directly in the lyrics of the song. He doesn’t over-think and if the tracks aren’t purely emblematic of his stated agenda, they come across as a representation of internal struggle, which makes them more interesting than many of the other tracks. Vocal style in “HOTFOOT” becomes essentially hypnotic coupled with excited electronic drums and soulless synth, which then carry forward in an exciting segue to track two, “Blow Away”, that includes nice lines like “you’re the one I want to watch TV with”, and “open up the fridge every thirty seconds”. The fear inherent in the advance of banal domesticity is an underplayed and fascinating concept.
The problem with this is the first two tracks start the album on a high that is not always a consistent engagement with the opening promise, and even within those two tracks the constant tipping into something interesting only to pull away becomes tedious and frustrating. It’s hard not to have great affection for an artist with the perfect musical style to tackle this very interesting subject matter leaping in to engage, but when they reveal a damp lack of courage in facing their own material, the disappointment overwhelms in the face of expectations.