I’ve often referred to Tom Jenkinson, a.k.a. Squarepusher as “the Frank Zappa of IDM”. That’s because he’s a brilliant musician and a sometimes-brilliant composer with an inability to self-edit and a constant desire to give the people what they don’t want. His music tends to come off jokey or insincere at times, but he insists that he means every note of it. I saw this CD at a Barnes & Noble in 2004 and bought it – one, because I’d heard favorable things about him when I was getting into Aphex Twin, and two, because I liked the cover. Electronic dudes don’t often show their faces, much less an unaltered, just-got-out-of-bed photo like this. I figured if he was willing to put his picture on the CD, it must be something he was proud of. I listened to it on the way home, and my thoughts were “This is incredible!”, “This is boring”, and “What the hell is with that fucking noise!?”, in some order. That really is the whole Squarepusher experience in three movements. It was enough to get me to buy a few more CDs – Hard Normal Daddy, which I thought was brilliant and one of the best albums I’d ever heard, Go Plastic, which I found overly abrasive (though I loved irritating my friends with it), and Music is Rotted One Note, probably his most acclaimed album, and one I thought was fascinating, if maybe a bit dull compared to his other work.
Now, my opinions on all this have changed over time, because Squarepusher is just that kind of artist. As with Frank, there are times when I’m obsessed with him and times that I just delete him from my iPod altogether, only to be drawn back in when a new album comes out (not coincidentally, Squarepusher’s latest disc was released three months ago, and Zappa’s was just last month, even though he’s been dead for 22 years now). I thought about this analogy a lot when re-listening to Ultravisitor this week, as it’s exactly the sort of album that Zappa loved to make – a long musical collage with incredible differences in dynamic from track to track, containing a lot of live bits and crowd noise but never sounding like an actual live set.
In fact, the diversity of Ultravisitor is really its defining trait. Squarepusher has always been dogged by that “I liked him better when he did X” criticism, but you can’t really say that about this one, since there are elements of nearly all his past work here, plus some things he’s never done before. I think that’s why it seems to be one of his most popular albums. The music of Squarepusher is about contradictions. Sometimes he pits sparse, tender moments against compositions which sound like a jackhammer destroying a glass factory. His drum n’ bass stuff can seem canned and unimaginative (how much can one man use the Amen break?), but when you hear the dude play drums it reveals a complex rhythmic understanding. His bass playing often goes from intricate jazzy picking to what sounds like a 5-year old slapping the strings for the first time. His best compositions are so good that you can’t help but wonder why he fucks around so much of the time. Ultravisitor has all of this, unpacked in all its variable glory – eleven seconds short of the CD-max 80 minute mark, it showcases everything, and then some.
Sometimes you wonder to what extent Jenkinson cares how his work will be perceived. Certainly there seems to be a conscious decision to hit both extremes as hard as possible – the classical guitar piece “Andrei” is so pretty that, in a vacuum, you’d never believe it’s Squarepusher, while “Steinbolt” sounds like several Van Der Graaf generators going berserk in a room full of plugged in guitars (by the way, for an absolutely bonkers Squarepusher tune that approaches like 300 BPM in the end, it’s surprisingly tuneful). His one concession is to show off some of the more agreeable material before things really go off the wall. For the former – “Iambic 9 Poetry”, a progressive, absolutely gorgeous piece with swirling drums and chiming, jazzy keyboards (is that a Fender Rhodes?); it is everything promised in Music is Rotted One Note and then some, and maybe the best single composition of Jenkinson’s career (on a more traditionally sequenced album, this would be the epic closing track). For the latter – “An Arched Pathway”, in which Jenkinson plays distorted riffs over the sound of a drum machine crashing at maximum volume. It is kind of like Aphex Twin’s “Ventolin” in that you really don’t want to play it in mixed company, or really any company whatsoever.
This brings up another aspect of Jenkinson’s work – improvisation, both on the instruments and on the mixing board. The “live” atmosphere that a lot of this has suits him well, since a lot of the decisions feel like they’re made up on the spot. Certainly a lot of this is composed, but when it comes to the actual mixdown, everything’s in the air – measures are shortened, instruments are distorted, elements drop out and come in, even the time signatures warp around all over the place. This was really the main selling point of 2001’s Go Plastic – it is not quite complete chaos but it sounded like the tracks were worked over so many times that you only got a glimpse of what the original composition was like. Ultravisitor has a lot of that too – take “District Line II”, which hops around so much that it’s unclear what the tune even is (was this originally a remix of “Go! Spastic”? “Come On My Selector”? Both?) This makes for an interesting listen, if a bit tough to remember. On the other side of the coin you have his jazzier, more serious work – stuff like “Iambic 9 Poetry”, “Circlewave”, and the solo guitar/bass pieces; still loosely structured, but often a better listen. Sometimes he’s able to combine the two, as on the excellent “Tetra-Sync”, which sounds like a lost tune from the Hard Normal Daddy sessions, building in a surprisingly linear fashion and then going through the gamut as things get heavy.
Squarepusher’s previous LP was called Do You Know Squarepusher?, which I thought was cute. First because it’s kind of asking if you know Tom Jenkinson personally (at a time when nobody knew what he actually looked like), but also because it’s like his 5th career left turn – the 10-minute musique concrete piece and the cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” may be shocking for another IDM artist, but Squarepusher had entered the realm of utter unpredictability long ago. Though Music is Rotted One Note is seen as his classic album today, at the time everyone was asking why he toned down the wacky factor so much. When he brought it back in a big way with Go Plastic, critics panned him for abandoning the rich sound of Music. I guess he can’t really win, but that’s the price of being an artist who follows his own muse rather than playing into expectations (see also: Rundgren, Todd). Ultravisitor has something for everyone, but if you plan to listen to the full album, you’re going to really, really get to know Squarepusher.