The Cinematic Underground

Cut Narrative

haven’t felt so powerfully conflicted about an album as I do about the Cinematic Underground’s debut in so long I honestly can’t recall the last time. Nathan Johnson (who gets a “Written & Directed by” credit, as well as lead vocals and much of the music) and company has put together as striking a debut as any, even if it’s also almost satirically derivative and quite possibly bad for you.

The sonics first: This is an album that could have been made by someone who has spent the last year listening to nothing but OK Computer (particularly “Lucky” and “The Tourist”) and The Meadowlands (particularly “13 Months In 6 Minutes” and “Thirteen Grand”). Oh, there are other influences: Sparklehorse at their most delicate and crunchy extremes (as well as their most despairing) pop up now and again, and the claustrophobic gloom of everyone from Joy Division to Plastikman gets the occasional nod. But mostly it’s as if Thom Yorke was having severe girl problems and even more angst than normal. You might say it’s Radiohead minus all the bits that Muse already grabbed.

There are plenty of good songs, though; the title track is “(Nice Dream)” (The Bends’ hallucinatory drifter) pinioned out like a butterfly, held at one particular moment for five minutes, and is quite beautiful. “The Face In The Crowd (Street Legal)” is the rockiest thing here and works well enough it’s hard not to wish the balance wasn’t tilted so far in favor of ballads. And even among those “My Dear Self” stands out. The four short interludes don’t do much except show Johnson’s talent for the portmanteau word (“Carnivalium”! “Monumentum”!), but the nine actual songs are pretty strong. Unfortunately just after the half way mark the worst song on the album (“The Face Of The Girl (Like Glass)”) sucks all the air out of the room, and things never quite recover.

But even more so than most albums like this, there’s more to Annasthesia than just the music. The lyric booklet is practically a comic book, illustrating the story in a way that makes it coherent. Usually with concept albums there are a few songs that don’t quite fit but here Zachary Johnson’s illustrations tie the whole thing together. And man, is it a depressing story: Boy works awful job and lives empty life, meets girl who could “save” him (he thinks), is too petrified to pursue her, they kind of find each other anyway, and then he gives up and lets her leave. The last song, “The Fall,” is the most crushed and broken thing I’ve heard in a while; it actually sounds like Johnson is curled into a ball on the ground as he whimpers “I let her go / So let it go / Get off my back.”

If Coldplay’s last album for example was an innocent underage beer, this is heroin: When the susceptible first use it, Annasthesia makes them feel different, but if they keep at it eventually they’ll need it just to feel “normal”, not to mention the fact they’ll have forgotten what actual normality was like. This is the kind of industrial-grade misery that sometimes gets branded “existential” by undergrads, but the only real connection to (say) Sartre’s Nausea is that in each case I get the recurring urge to slap the protagonist upside the head and yell at them for feeling so goddamn sorry for themselves rather than doing something about it. I can respect their respective creators’ skills at creating night-black emotional tonality (and both are very good at it), but I can’t really get behind the effort.

For the right kind of listener, Annasthesia is going to be headphone heaven, something to get lost in from time to time when they’re feeling down, and it works superbly on that level. But at the same time, it should probably be kept away from impressionable teenagers, and anyone who notices it starting to colour their emotional reaction to real life needs to put the disc down immediately and talk to someone about it.

Reviewed by: Ian Mathers

Reviewed on: 2005-01-18

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