Here's the thing about being ahead of your time: if you wait long enough, eventually time catches up. While “ahead of their time” is usually a component of a tragic story, for Beauty Pill, it's a triumph. The 11 years since their groundbreaking debut full length The Unsustainable Lifestyle have been incredibly kind to their brand of social conscious meta-genre atmosphere-heavy indie rock. What was once an uncategorizable outlier, is now still uncategorizable, but it sounds as fresh as if it had been made yesterday. So fortunate for Beauty Pill that they put out a new album yesterday. Behold the beautiful pill that is Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are.
By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor
The story behind the album is almost as compelling as the music itself. A nearly fatal heart infection sidelined bandleader Chad Clark in 2007, who was unable to even pick up a guitar after life-saving open heart surgery. Clark became fascinated by electronic composition, and began constructing rough drafts of his songs electronically before he shared them with the band. At the advice of Fugazi legend Guy Picciotto, Clark (who mastered Fugazi's best-sounding and arguably best album The Argument) was encouraged to see these compositions as finished products more than as demos.
As Clark recovered, the band decided to complete their new album as a live installation art piece. Called Immersive Ideal, the band convened at the Arlington, Virginia art space Artisphere in 2011, and allowed visitors to watch the recording process as it happened. In an interview with AFROPUNK, Clark explained that he wanted to dispel the myth that he was somehow a perfectionist and a recluse by opening up his process, while also eliminating the notion that an album takes as long to record as it does to listen to. The sessions produced the fantastic single “Afrikaner Barista,” but no album emerged. It turned out that a catastrophic hard drive failure nearly took the files out, and a long process of recovering the data from those sessions pushed the album's release back even further. With the odds so heavily stacked against Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are, it's damn near miraculous that the album exists at all, let alone that it's objectively a masterpiece and more timely in 2015 than ever.
First track “Drapetomania!”—named for the supposed mental illness proposed in the 19th century that would cause a slave to escape from their master—opens with the defiant line “I want more life, fucker.” Clark has fought obstacles external, internal, and unfathomable, and emerged more uncompromisingly contrary than ever. Over what might be the most upbeat accompaniment of his career, Clark sings “the neighbor's WIFI's called 'magic negro now' / I am gonna burn his house down, if I may.” Since his work with Smart Went Crazy (which fortunately shares a drummer with Beauty Pill, the great Devin Ocampo, also of Dischord bands Faraquet and Medications) Clark's lyrics have poked a finger in the eye in the places where the illusion of “post-racial America” are most surreal.
Not enough positive can be said about “Afrikaner Barista,” which was my favorite track of 2012, 2013, and apparently now 2015. Breaking down an uncomfortable interaction with (spoiler alert) an Afrikaner barista, the song's expansive arrangement prominently features a dog bowl as a lead instrument, a slinky horn line, a miles-deep synth bass line, as well as some of the best percussion of Ocampo's long and impressive career. Few songs are worth listening to past the three minute mark. This one owns it's nearly 7 minute run-time with pride.
For a band that grew out of the famous Dischord / DC punk scene that produced brevity-obsessed bands like Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, and Government Issue to have their best songs be the ones that don't just disregard the punk rule of louder / faster, but positively obliterate it, is preposterous. And preposterously wonderful. Three tracks in, co-lead singer Jean Cook takes her turn at the mic on the heartbreaking “Ann the Word” (not to be confused with Dischord legend Lungfish's song “Ann the Word,” which Beauty Pill also cover on this album because nothing is simple on this record). Clark described the song as one that was too personal for him to sing himself. “In the dream, the car fills up with water / and you and I are kissing just the same.”
“Steven and Twonge” is the closest you'll come to Beauty Pill of old. Chad Clark's atonal guitar meanderings, bassist Basla Andolsun's tight melodies, and Devin Ocampo's all-drum-solo-all-the-time vie for attention with the electronic flourishes and beats of Beauty Pill Mk III, while Clark and Cook harmonize a tale of suburban terror and transcendence. The song imagines an escape between Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, the gay couple persecuted by the Malawi government in 2010, while humanizing their relationship as maybe not a perfect one. The band's fascination with the darkness on the edges of the modern world continue with “Ain't A Jury In The World Gon Convict You Baby.” The omni-genre track weaves in Bollywood strings, Japanese folk, and an almost blues stomp. It's fitting that the most “accessible” track is probably “Exit Without Saving,” a song that opens with a glitchy beat, and a downtempo guitar line that wouldn't be out of place on a Nine Inch Nails record. Clark slyly references the famous insult (often incorrectly attributed to both Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw) “we've established what you are, now we're just haggling over the price” before launching into the album's strongest hook.
“The Prize” is one of two covers featured on Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are. The song by similarly uncategorizable Arto Lindsay is transformed into a stunning ballad constantly doing battle with the band's tendancy to self-deconstruct. Glitch drums and a dissonant sax solo do battle with the expansive beauty, in much the same way distorted guitar noise and a distorted drum line threatened to tear apart the original. “Dog With Rabbit In Mouth, Unharmed” eulogized a beloved pet, calling to mind Smart Went Crazy's “Blackbird B Side.” Death has always been heavy on Chad Clark's mind. His fascination with what it means to not exist anymore amplified by his own brush with death. In his music, death isn't necessarily something to be feared, it's just desperately misunderstood. And trying to understand it is an irresistible puzzle.
But the end of life isn't the only thing on the band's mind in 2015 (or 2011 if you want to be technical about it). “For Pretend” gets into the massive complication of raising children as an artist. “You have to suffer for my art,” Clark tells his children through the mouth of a struggling actor. It's half apology, half shrug. He compares making art to a drug addiction with the same beats of irrational and irresponsible behavior. “I want more life, fucker” indeed. “Most people like their threats unspecified,” Clark sings in “When Cornered.” It's a song where Clark and co paint a “it's me or you” scenario. Because sometimes one persons life means anothers death. It's a sentiment that carries into the albums penultimate anthem “Near Miss Stories.” “The driver's adjusting her make-up in the rear view / In 2 miles she's gonna die and almost take you with her too / Near miss stories, we love them cause they're true.”
The record closes out with a cover of DC post-hardcore legends Lungfish. (For those of you just joining our program already in progress, post-hardcore used to mean something else. Ask your parents.) The identically named but in no way musically identical “Ann the Word” takes a round trip back to the records' origins with Clark's original “Ann The Word” sound collage experiment. The Lungfish cover is the strongest indulgence in the bands' sound manipulation. It's a complicated arrangement, filled with as many whirring machines and sample and hold vocals as live instrumentation. The anthemic chant of “the world vanished in a gentle breeze” fights for attention with the sound of a song tearing itself apart. The world may end with a whimper, not a bang, but Beauty Pill seems to be of the mind that even a whimper can be cacophonous. The song fades out, before re-emerging with a chorus of Jean Cooks. Since Smart Went Crazy, Chad Clark has made an excellent use of pairing male and female vocals to different ends, but nowhere has it been more stark and stunning than the coda to “Ann The Word.”
Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are is many things. It's a love letter to sound from an artist whose day job happens to be being one of the best recording and mastering engineers on the planet. The album seems to find the middle ground between Steve Albini's honesty in recording and Brian Eno's obsessive layering. It's a love letter to the DC scene from an artist who has been at the heart of the scene since 1994, but always still been an outlier in a scene known for its signature sound. It's a musing on death and mortality from an artist whose own brush with death has sharpened his focus. It's a rumination on the surrealities of race in America in the 21st century and the global implications from an artist who has always found a way to broaden the telescope from the immensely personal to the universal in a single turn of phrase. But while it's tempting to focus the attention just on Chad Clark, this is absolutely a collaborative effort, with each member of the band showcased stronger and in greater detail than ever before.
The past 6 months have seen heavily anticipated albums not just live up to the unfathomable hype, but actually exceed anyone's expectations. Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are stands upright next to D'Angelo's Black Messiah, and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, as a powerful statement on love, life, race in America, conflict and struggle, the power of art to save, and ultimately the hope that we are all worth saving. The only criticism I can find with Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are is that now I don't have anything else to look forward to. The bar has been set too high.
The album is available in varying formats from audiophile hi-res masters to vinyl and everything in between from Butterscotch Records: http://butterscotchrecords.net/records/describes