I feel like I’ve been taking too many weeks off lately! Well, I had some kind of stomach bug that’s been going around, I guess, so I actually needed the week off for health reasons. I’m better now! And I’m ready to talk about Janelle Monáe and The ArchAndroid.
Janelle Monáe is one of those artists I knew about for awhile, but it took some time before I looked into her music. It’s only been a couple of years (at most) since I first picked up Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), which I really, really liked. I think I bought The ArchAndroid not too long after that (the timeline is a little fuzzy in my head), but it didn’t hook me right away. I listened to it again recently and came around to enjoying it a whole lot.
Let me preface this by saying this isn’t going to be an in-depth review. It’s mainly going to be a review of the aesthetics of the album. Because there’s a LOT going on in this album and I would need to study it some more before I start exploring its themes and influences, one of which is the 1927 classic silent film Metropolis – which I have not seen yet. I know! I know. I’ve been meaning to for ages. (It’s on Netflix, by the way!) I feel like it would be a great disservice to this album to call this post a comprehensive review, so let me repeat that it’s not.
Now let’s start at the beginning. I absolutely love the first 13-ish minutes of this album, which is to say the first 4 tracks. They flow into one another flawlessly, like the first four chapters of a book you can’t put down. If I start this album at the beginning, then I can’t skip anything until I’ve listening to the first 4 tracks. It would be too hard for me to pick a favorite out of these. It’s like watching one of those Alfonso Cuarón long shots.
I keep comparing this to other mediums, but it really is like experiencing something grand and even cinematic! Pop music in general is kind of made to be enjoyed in bits. You can listen to a track here, a track there – it doesn’t have to be all at once. Which makes sense because pop music gets its exposure mainly through the radio, so you want it in bits. But this album is a work meant to be enjoyed in its full unabridged form, so it’s hard to take it in pieces at times.
But let’s move on. After this blitzkrieg of an intro, we get some respite with the soft and sweet, romantic “Sir Greendown”. It’s a very old-fashioned sound. I think it’s early 50’s era pop or doo-wop influenced. Anyhow, it’s a short respite, because then we jump into the plaintive and fast-paced “Cold War.” I love the way Monáe sings “This is a Cold War/Do you know what you’re fighting for?” again and again because it sounds different every time. There are even moments, to my ears, where she hits notes with the vocal richness of Beyoncé. Really! It’s fantastic. Instrumentally, we get some call backs to Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), specifically “Many Moons.” It’s a real treat for those who enjoyed the EP.
Then we get to what is one of my favorite tracks, “Tightrope”! I really like the way it just jumps in. And her singing is stellar in this track. The words roll off her tongue with so much confidence – that’s what this song is all about, anyway. I love how she rhymes “alligators” and “rattlesnakers”. She makes it sound so natural, you don’t even question it, but it does give you pause when you realize it. Having Big Boi feature in it gives it a very OutKast vibe that I enjoy – but it’s still a Janelle Monáe song.
To the uninitiated, “Neon Gumbo” is some kind of scrambled message song. To those in the know, it’s the last minute and a half of “Many Moons” (again, from Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)) played backwards, with some storm sound effects at the end, which brings us into “Oh, Maker.” It’s not my favorite track. It’s got this sort of sing-songy melody, like a showtune or something. I don’t care too much for it. But it precedes “Come Alive (War of the Roses)” which is fantastic! It’s completely wild and unrestrained and yet it’s perfectly composed. It makes me think of classic Universal monster movies for some reason – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man. There’s something dramatic and sinister yet kind of playful and campy about it. Definitely one of the best tracks off this album.
Next up, we get a great slow track, “Mushrooms & Roses.” I actually like the distortion of Monáe’s voice here. I think it fits the slow burn of the song very well. There’s something soothing about it. I melt right into it. “Suite III Overture” is almost a reprise of “Mushrooms & Roses” (and some of the other previous tracks) and it’s just as soothing. It makes a great transition into the uplifting and happy “Neon Valley Street.” I also like the rap in the middle, especially the verses “We met alone forbidden in the city/Running fast through time like Tubman and John Henry.”
The soft spoken words at the end of “Neon Valley Street” make the following track “Make the Bus” a little jarring – but it’s easy to get into it! It’s a funk-influenced sound, and Of Montreal’s vocals are so much fun to listen to, especially with lyrics like “You’ve got ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ under your pillow” and “I’m standing over you eating juicy fruits till it gets in your eye!” It’s weird and delightful and kind of awkward in an endearing way.
Then we get to “Wondaland” which is just as weird and awkward and delightful and endearing! This one is easily another one of my favorite tracks. Monáe’s vocals are so fun here. You can really hear how versatile they are. There’s lots of made-up animal-type noises too – I love them all. This is the track that most feels and sounds like an android composed it. The strangeness makes the next track “57821” another nice respite, with its gentle folk ballad sound. I picture some futuristic android bard singing this song in the alley of some futuristic dystopian setting – appropriate for the themes and story behind this album, and most certainly what Monáe wanted to evoke.
We’re winding down with a love song – “Say You’ll Go” – as the penultimate track. Verses like “Love is not a fantasy/A haiku written in Japanese/A word too often used but not believed” manage to sound poetic without being corny. Even though it’s sung soft and sweet, you feel the passion with the words “Let’s find forever/And write our name in fire on each other’s hearts.” And that last bit with the chorus crooning over “Clair de Lune”? Brilliant.
We end with “BaBopByeYa” and strikingly dramatic finishing track. I love Monáe’s voice here. It’s rich and heavy, which matches the noir attitude of the song. Best of all, it’s very cinematic – it literally sounds like the song that plays during the end credits of a movie. I think it’s the perfect finale.
Before you listen to The ArchAndroid, I’d recommend giving Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) a quick listen. As an EP, it’s not that long – only 5 tracks totaling 17 and a half minutes! (That’s not counting the extra 2 tracks from the special edition – which I’d recommend as well. They’re nice! But that’s a review for another day.) I guess it’s not required listening, but it’s not like it’s that difficult to do. Anyway, these are the first 2 out of 3 albums that are part of a concept series. And I’m kind of a purist, so I’ve listened to them in order. I just think you should too! But I won’t hold it against anyone if they don’t. This album is still an aesthetic treat all on its own.