MIA, again

Via The Vine, a pre-release look at MIA’s new record, which is perhaps a little less exciting given that it leaked over the weekend, but anyway. I thought it was worth posting here considering the tract I wrote about her a coupla weeks back.

So with a blaze of publicity and the almighty shitfight with the New York Times, it’s been hard to escape M.I.A. of late, but actually kinda easy to forget that she’s got a new album out. Here at The Vine, we’re excited to have got our hands on a pre-release copy of said record. So what does it sound like? And is it any good?

// / Y / (which will henceforth be referred to as MAYA for the sake of keyboard ergonomics and general sanity) starts with a clatter of typing, the sound of a marker scratching paper, and ‘The Message’, a minute of tin-foil hat paranoia set to a lyrical riff on Dem Bones. “Head bones connects to the neck bone,” whispers an unidentified voice over a head-punching beat. “Neck bone connects to the arm bone / Arm bone connects to the hand bone / Hand bone connects to the Internet / connects to the Google / connects to the government.” Oh dear. The thing with conspiracy theories is this: look at these clowns. Look at them.

Does anyone seriously believe these dickheads could organise a sinister Blackhawk-piloting New World Order? The world is the way it is because people are generally selfish and idle and fundamentally uninterested in anything beyond their own lives. The system, such as it is, rewards self-interest and thus monumental assholes rise to the top – and it’s clearly in their interest to make sure things stay that way. But that doesn’t mean they’re watching us, Maya. They don’t care about us. They only care about themselves.

Regardless, as far as opening tracks go, ‘The Message’ is something of a non sequitur. It prepares you for an album of invective and fiery rhetoric…but curiously, despite what you’d expect, that’s not what you get with MAYA. The aforementioned fiery rhetoric is there, alright, but it surfaces only sporadically on an album that seems to make a point of covering every conceivable base, making it frustrating and brilliant, often simultaneously.

You’ve heard the best bit already – ‘Born Free’ is the album’s most immediate moment and thus a fine choice of single, and honestly, if you rip off/sample Suicide, you can’t go far wrong. Its incendiary chorus – “I got something to say” – could be a slogan for the rest of the record, so long as you note the key point that what that something might be isn’t specified.

In many ways, this album embodies its creator – a person for whom the personal and the political are so closely entwined as to be virtually indistinguishable. M.I.A. seems to view her own life as a political act, her very existence as some sort of amorphously-defined one-woman protest movement. As such, her lyrics switch constantly from micro to macro without skipping a carefully-constructed beat.

Ever aware of her own contradictions, she toys with them on the fascinating ‘Lovalot’, where she sets out her ever-strident approach to the world: “I really love a lot / But I won’t turn my cheek like I’m Gandhi / I fight the ones that fight me”. But the way she delivers the lyric is (deliberately?) ambiguous, her sloganeering as provocative as it has ever been: “a lot” sounds awfully like “Allah”, and later in the song, the “I fight the ones that fight me” vocal is resampled and sliced so “I fight” sounds like “I fuck”. She namechecks Obama…or is she saying “a bomber”? What does it all mean? Who knows? But maybe that’s the point.

Conceptually, the whole album’s keystone is probably the reflective ‘Story To Be Told’, which declares repeatedly, “All I want was for my story to be told”. In 2010, that story has been told ad infinitum already, its facts so bound up in M.I.A.’s personal mythology that what’s true and what isn’t is almost impossible to discern. This, no doubt, is just how it’s meant to be. But here’s the thing – while both politics and personal emotion are ultimately subjective, the former is much, much less so than the latter. Or at least it should be. You get the impression that for M.I.A., politics are evaluated in the same quivering-finger-on-the-trigger way in which she approaches everything else. In the wake of the Hirschberg explosion, M.I.A. told Rolling Stone as much: “If I want to be really political, I’d have to sit down and study. But I feel like my approach to politics is [that] I never said I’m smart and I read this and I’m making assumptions. But why aren’t I allowed to write about my experience? … There needs to be some sort of an outlet for people like me.”

One could argue that if you don’t know what you’re talking about, you should take the time to find out before you go charging in wielding a lyrical battleaxe. But anyway, enough about politics. You can set aside the lyrics and still get a sense of what MAYA is about, because musically, it spends three quarters of an hour skipping constantly from sound to sound and idea to idea with scant regard for continuity or coherence.

I’m not talking track-to-track here, either – every song skips and skitters around a shifting sonic landscape. A shitload of work has clearly gone into this record, and a lot of that work seems to entail making you feel like you’re sitting in the room with someone who keeps flicking the channel on the TV – which, on reflection, might well have been the effect for which its always media-savvy creator was aiming. This, it should be noted here, is not a bad thing: it means that even when it stinks – which it does on occasion –  MAYA is never, ever dull.

The most notable departure from Kala and Arular is the fact that M.I.A. is singing these days. In her now-notorious article/hatchet job for the New York Times a few weeks back, Lynn Hirschberg quoted Diplo pointing out that “Maya is a big pop star now, and pop stars sing”, and claiming that consequently he had “made her sing” onMAYA. The results of his urging first appear on ‘Xxxo’, wherein, after a build-up of echo-laden beats and leg-humping synths, a shrill but serviceable singing voice appears during the chorus. It may or may not be significant that the chorus she’s singing goes, “You want me to be somebody who I’m really not”.

M.I.A.’s singing voice appears again on the jaw-droppingly awful ‘It Takes A Muscle’ – a cod-reggae track that’s uncomfortably reminiscent of Blondie’s ‘Tide Is High’ and is instantly condemned to skip-button status until the end of time – and on the not-quite-as-shitful-but-still-rather-nondescript ‘It Iz What It Iz’. Elsewhere, Sunset Strip guitars rock out on ‘Meds and Feds’, a chainsaw shrieks on ‘Steppin Up’ and a whole bloody Qantas advert choir appears on the excellent ‘Tell Me Why’.

Ambitious, contradictory, unrepentant, unafraid to charge in head first and worry about the consequences later: shit, what else would you expect from M.I.A.? As ever, MAYA sets out more questions than it answers. And as ever, that may well be what makes both album and author so compelling.

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