Planningtorock - All Love's Legal
Posted on Wednesday, 5 March 2014 | No Comments
The narrative of dance music over the last three decades has been that of a weeding out of radical thought and alternative identities. The same as much else, true, but this seems particularly acute in the dance world. Remember that in the late seventies, a significant factor in the rockist rejection and fear of disco was underlying racism and homophobia, that house music was the product of a disco circuit that had was running out of records to play and so embraced the possibilities of mixing, drum machines and electronics to create a new strain of 'their' music, that the rave scene of the late eighties and early nighties was actively legislated against by the Conservative government of the time. Yet somehow we were always told that white men with the guitars were the 'real' revoltion: funny old world, isn't it?
Of course, we live in an era where clubbing and dance music has been thoroughly commodified, neutered and sold to a mainstream audience with no interest in the sexual and racial politics and the subversion that remains buried in the music that they listen to, but which a succession of useful (in the Stalinist sense) revivalists and dumbed down successes have rewritten as something safer and largely mindless. This is not to say that across the different strands of dance or dance-related musics there is not a plethora of vital artists producing brilliant, experimental, life-affirming work, because of course they are. But the public perception has undeniably shifted: disco, to take just one example, is no longer about liberation and self-expression but just cheap kitsch for the jaded middle classes. Instead of a safe place for those mistreated by society, the dancefloor has become the prowling ground of the uni lad. What is lacking is dance music now is not sonic radicalism, but political radicalism, a message that stands for something other safe consensus and for outside interests.
This, of course, is where Planningtorock comes in. The musical nom de plume of Jam Rostrom, a Berlin-based artist who trained and practised as a visual artist prior to the start of the Planningtorock project. Best known to many as a collaborator with The Knife on their 2010 electro-opera sountrack Tomorrow, In a Year, Rostrom's second album W came out in 2011 and cemented Planningtorock as a distinct and challenging voice working at the edge of pop. For that album, Rostrom adopted a prosphetic nose as part of the album's mission to drag the listener into the inner lives of the narrator(s) - all the better to twist convention with, my child - which inevitably, depressingly, threatened to overshadowed the music of W, full of cutting-edge yet curiously baroque arrangements and the pitch-shifted, androgynous vocal styles that have become the calling card of Planningtorock. Where that release was a more cerebral, conciously 'artistic' affair, All Love's Legal is a record that drops the pretence and goes for the jugular musically and lyrically. At a time when dance music has become as backwards-looking as rock and almost as regressive in its politics, All Love's Legal uses the past to look forward and to find that spirit of liberation anew.
The sound pallete for All Love's Legal remains expansive, the album mixing contemporary R&B percussion sounds with funk and disco loops. On a track like Let's Talk About Gender Baby, a deep-hitting guitar groove is smothered with deliberately artificial horn sounds while Rostrom's pitch-shifted vocals answer the repeated title question by asking: why does it have to be one or the other? It's a track that's at once very strident and straightforward, yet also leaves the final answers in the hands of the audience. The pop on this album is certainly painted with bolder colours than on W, but by virtue of the minimalistic sound design and most obviously the lyrical themes Rostrom addresses throughout, it's not exactly a big shiny mainstream pop album either. Which seems the point - tracks like Misogyny Drop Dead or the soaring title track, with it's refrain "All love's legal / You can't legalise love" are ideal dancefloor fodder, but for a dancefloor that's prepared to raise its game, to question its own behaviour. These songs, at once pop and defiantly outsider, are also the perfect sanctuaries for those not represented by what disco or house have become, immaculate yet space-filled productions whose ambiguous diva welcomes in those willing to make the break from thr mainstream.
The inevitable comparison point is with Rostram's previous collaborators The Knife, whose last album Shaking the Habitual also dealt explicitly with gender politics, sexuality and patriarchy , and also saw a musical as well as lyrical shift to embody this dramatic thematic shift more directly. Both records fused more direct, up-beat dance numbers with stranger, langorous moments - and if you really want to push it, hell, they both even had bright-pink covers. Shaking the Habitual though felt like an unwieldy academic text, and while it contained some truly thrilling music (the industrial churn of Full of Fire, the percussion mania of Without You My Life Would Be Boring, the Fugazi-quoting Raging Lung), the poorly conceived and badly executed drone pieces and extended length of the record ultimately sank it. Combine that with a ludricous 'live' show that married dance to PA playbacks, and what happened with the Shaking the Habitual project was that the important social points it was trying to make were sank beneath its own pretentions (or, with the live show, ripped-off customers who wanted the live show they had been promised beforehand). The sharpness, the brevity and the style of All Love's Legal makes it far more successful as an idelogical document and as an album. The sloganism of the lyrics here makes sense within the alternative dancefloor dramatised here, while the interludes here like the twinkling vastness of Answerland or the brief segue of Words Are Glass add to rather than distract from the flow of the record.
The ultimate success of All Love's Legal lies in the total synthesis of music and message throughout. This is a record that seeks to re-imagine dance music as the site of social and personal liberation it once was, to make it a place of political radicalism and freedom. If it looks backwards, it is not out of retromania or born of reactionary ideals but to link the qualities of the past with the sounds of the present, and always with an eye to pressing ever onwards. This is a skewed, day-glo manifesto for change that affects the head and the body equally, that provokes whilst also delighting. It's a much-needed human statement in these times, and for the boldness and power of Rostrom's work here, we should be thankful.