My Robot Friend
here's a bit in the radio-show incarnation of Douglas Adams' immortal The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which fugitive ex-President Zaphod Beeblebrox and fellow hitchhiker Roosta, fleeing torture at the diabolically dispassionate hands of the Total Perspective Vortex—which treats its unlucky occupant to a to-scale vision of the entire universe, along with a tiny marker reading "YOU ARE HERE"—find themselves in a crushingly loud discotheque otherwise occupied entirely by robots. Adamant that Zaphod and Roosta should have fun, the synthetic dancers order the music amplified, the strobes accelerated, and, most memorably, that a nozzle in the wall "spray the smell of hot sweat over everything". It's a nightmarish sequence—one of Adams' few true dystopias—and its excision in all subsequent versions of the story, though probably a sound decision, makes one wonder: was it axed simply for its incongruity? Did Adams regret what was, in the end, mostly a cheap late-1970s shot at disco? Or did he, with characteristic prescience, foresee My Robot Friend, and decide things might not be so bad?
Here's the idea. My Robot Friend is Howard Rigberg, a thirty-five-year-old New York electroclash artist who sings songs about being in love and lust "because I'm preprogrammed to do so" and performs in a blinking, whirring robot suit of his own construction. Also, he has a metal penis that gushes flame, and the liner notes for his new full-length, Dial Zero, smell exactly like portions of the documentation for Microsoft's Age of Empires. All this—except, admittedly, the last, which is a coincidence—stinks of gimmick, and of course that's what it is; but Dial Zero is also half of a very fun album, one in which Adams' sweat-nozzle pessimism is cheerfully debunked in favor of an Asimov in which some things actually work.
There's a lot of Kraftwerk here, of course, and a lot of Devo, but MRF's most blatant moments of indebtitude are dispensed with early, as "23 Minutes in Brussels" and "Dial Zero," respectively, act as brief and cheerful tribute songs. Of these, it's the title track that makes it on its own, subverting its goofy techno-paranoia ("Telephone ringing in the middle of the night / Trying to find a number that'll make it all right") with a breakneck snare drum and enough bleeping to score an entire episode of the Hitchhiker's Guide. Elsewhere, "Problems" blazes through two minutes of staccato psychoanalysis, remaining funny by refusing to linger for more than half a second on any of its one-liners; and the lewdly exultant "Swallow" allows rapper Crasta Yo some bewildered interjections into MRF's deadpan anthem to sexual omnivorousness.
The sex thing doesn't always work: "The Good Part," in which our robot friend laments his inability to reach said good part, comes off as uninspired and juvenile, and is one of Dial Zero's intersections with Adams' vision of robots trying too hard to titillate organic life (at the misguided behest of the latter). Similarly unsuccessful is "The Cut"—clubbier than anything else on the album, it goes for four and a half minutes with minimal musical or lyrical variance.
The biggest draw here is "One More Try," in which Antony (sans Johnsons) does some unexpected emoting over a "Closer" beat and the occasional prudently deployed electric chitter, belting some incongruously human lyrics ("You looked the part but you let me down / And from the start you just messed around", etc.) whose deliberate classicism, like Antony's throaty warble, provides an oasis of real sweat and real skin amid the rush of steel and circuitry. It's telling that this is not only the most immediately appealing song on the record but the most ultimately satisfying—for all his likeability, and despite the best efforts of a plethora of guests, a flame-penis-less My Robot Friend can't quite force a listener's commitment for the long haul. You'll probably find yourself taking him in fifteen-minute chunks—but what fifteen-minute chunks! A lot of this album is purely, genuinely exuberant, and if you put it on at the right time you can laugh in the face of even the Total Perspective Vortex.