3 out of 5
Label: Sub Pop
Produced by: Clipping and Steve Kaplan (recorded by)
An absolutely fascinating – and certainly powerful, at times – concept album that, unfortunately, gets in its own way.
Formed by too-self-aware beat maker Jonathan Kaplan of Captain Ahab and noise maker William Hutson of Rale, Clipping is, perhaps, better read as an experimental group, the former artist pushing the latter to frame his distortions with danceability, and, in reverse, Hutson thankfully grounding Kaplan’s indulgences. However, bringing in MC Daveed Diggs to the mix encourages an assessment of the group as hip-hop – not to be shallow, but there’s definitely someone rapping over the tracks – and former releases might’ve supported that, leaning a bit more into a single song accessibility, with definite club leanings.
Splendor & Misery seems to veer toward something other, which attaches a rather brilliant narrative to anti-music; tracks which refuse to evolve, vocals that are delivered at a distance, and sequencing that quite constantly breaks the album’s immersiveness.
Diggs spins a tale – and I’m going to directly quote the Allmusic review, here – about “the only survivor of a slave revolt, who is trapped on a spaceship traveling throughout the universe,” mapped to a rather minimalistic set of electronic scrapes from Kaplan and Hutson, excepting a few very brief bursts when legitimate beats emerge. I quote the story because I don’t want to claim to be smart enough to have pieced that together, but the gist absolutely comes across. My reading was maybe a bit less literal, mapping race relations to someone’s space journey, but the intention of and intelligence behind the lyrics is present all the way through whether you’re catching the literary references that review mentions or not. I did catch myself going through the disc a couple of times just to listen in, which is definitely a sign of good writing.
But I had trouble getting into it as an album. I’m generally down with experimental compositions, but the middle ground this album tries to strike between its alienating sounds and its beats just doesn’t meld. Moments when things congeal are over in a hot flash, ending before thoughts feel completed – the story feels like it drifts from song to song instead of making a statement per track – and long swaths at the beginning and end of the disc are rather wandering, and repetitive. Daveed is talk-rapping in a purposefully distracted manner; the music is bubbling and buzzing without clear intent. And then an interlude. And then a beat that appears and disappears. The middle of the disc is the strongest, not surprisingly including the most focused tracks – True Believer, Air ‘Em Out, Break the Glass – which are backed by music that, yes, has beats, but also delivers a more defined and driving mood.
It’s definitely an interesting disc, and possibly something more appealing without any expectations attached. But even after enough listens to, I think, peels those away, I still found it to be a tough sell as something I’d actively want to put on.