The decade that began with more than a few bangers ends with a whimper for Basement Jaxx. If the flatlining Scars is any indication, the mashed-up, tricked-out era that Rooty wrought and Kish Kash kicked has ultimately left Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe as confused as the rest of us about what counts. Or else the rest of pop music has finally caught up to them.
Either way, Scars is a peculiarly irritating sort of failure. It’s an overachieving, overqualified failure. It’s no paint-by-numbers yawner a la everything Armand Van Helden, Moby, and the rest of the house revivalists have been doing all decade. It’s got all the energy of its predecessors (arguably more than Crazy Itch Radio, which garnered all the bitter, crestfallen reviews this one far more richly deserves), but their kitchen-sink flourishes are now unmistakably presented as the main course. Not even in the most untethered moments of Kish Kash, their most arrogantly Jaxx-Jaxx album, did they allow clever songwriting to take a backseat to straight up onomatopoeia.
The cover of Scars (an owl entombed within 18 separate Halloween costumes) just about sums up both the desperation and total arbitrary nature of the Jaxx’s approach. Coming on like a Sinatra-esque Duets album from the future, the Jaxx have more giddy-slappy guest stars on deck here than an entire season’s worth of Love Boat, forcing Buxton and Ratcliffe to repeatedly grind gears instead of bump nasties. Cohesion gets thrown overboard as they set ‘em up and knock ‘em down. And whereas the golden sonic showers of “Get Me Off,” “Rendez-Vu,” and “Lucky Star” left glittery snail trails dribbling from your ears, even the ripest tomatoes on their new LP sound plain sluggish in comparison.
“Day of the Sunflowers (We March On)” should’ve been an all-time coup for Jaxx, featuring as it does the vocals of Yoko “Yes I’m Your Angel Tra-La-La-La-La” Ono. Instead of spreading her boho babble like KY, they dole out her disembodied, heavily filtered thought fragments as though they were remaking “Walking on Thin Ice” for Britney Spears—complete with a croaking, unexpected orgasm. That said, you’re never not aware that you’re listening to Yoko Ono. The same can’t be said for any number of other guest vocalists. On “A Possibility,” Amp Fiddler gamely reenacts Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” but has never sounded less soulful. Lisa Kekaula, who took every listener’s name in “Good Luck,” murmurs total capitulation throughout “Stay Close.” And somehow the swashbuckling Sam Sparro and the former Test Icicle Devonte Hynes come out of their respective tracks sounding like the exact same person. Somewhat ironically, the easiest, breeziest Jaxx jaunts on the album are the first two tracks, the first of which (the ebbing title track) stuffs three vocalists into the mix, whereas the latter (the dirty epic “Raindrops”) is the only track out of 13 not to feature a guest vocalist.
Maybe Scars can be written off as a “too many cooks” type situation, but in retrospect, Basement Jaxx seem to have been working their way to this point for a few albums now. This is the furthest they’ve been from the precipice of their entire careers. Pop culture doesn’t have to play by the rules of reality. The pain of insanity, it turns out, is far preferable to the crestfallen dryness of the status quo. Scars is the sound of rehabilitation.