Considering how dire a lot of superstar EDM releases have been in the last year, deadmau5 enters the fray with the advantage of deeply diminished expectations. His latest, while (1<2), comfortably clears the bar set by his contemporaries, and that would be impressive if the bar wasn’t buried underground.
Twenty-five tracks spread over two full-length mixes, the album doesn’t lack for ambition, touching on classic electronica, alternative, and indie rock. Perhaps most surprising is how often this doesn’t sound like a modern EDM album at all. Heard out of context, songs like “Silent Picture” and “Invidia” could easily be mistaken for modern-era Mogwai or a lost Gastr del Sol track given a big-budget remaster. Had either song explored more than one idea, one might applaud the bravery of trying to keep company with post-rock giants, but even on autopilot those bands knew that merely establishing mood isn’t enough. Repeating very simple, barely there melodies over spare arrangements and ghostly keys is fine when you’re soundtracking a Michael Mann film, but it isn’t enough to fill the long gaps between your club-crashers.
“Creep” seems to even acknowledge this, giving up on a successful post-rock experiment halfway through for joyless dubstep hysterics better suited to Skrillex (who at least gives his insta-dated tail-chasing some energy). And that kind of restlessness repeats throughout. “Acedia,” the opening track of disc two, isn’t really one song, but two smashed together: The first minute and a half is the kind of cinematic, classically influenced soundscape that artists like Hybrid and BT used to spackle disparate anthems together with, while the nearly five minutes of grinding noise, bass, and beats that follow bear no resemblance to what came before it. It’s a jarring beginning for a work allegedly pantomiming a self-contained DJ set, and it isn’t an isolated instance. “Infra Turbo” can’t decide if it wants to be a Kraftwerk track or a song from the Legend soundtrack, and thus settles for splitting the difference. So instead of a brassy mashup of beloved influences that might require some elegance or at least a sense of humor, we get a clunky medley of snippets that simply don’t play well together.
deadmau5 has never been known for his cheeky self-awareness or sly wit. This is a man, after all, who once got in a flame war with Madonna for suggesting that EDM and drugs may go well together. He thinks big, the bigger the better, and while (1<2) is his leviathan paean to mammoth big-osity. It’s 2014’s prog-house answer to Goldie’s Saturnz Return, an album so huge, portentous, and varnished within an inch of its life that it can’t possibly fail, until it does (just ask Goldie).
Unlike Saturnz Return, though, it isn’t too good to throw a few meaty bones to the dance floor. “My Pet Coelacanth” worships unashamedly at the altar of Daft Punk, but it’s the pre-Random Access Memories version, the one that wanted to make even wallflower androids dance and didn’t have to throw air quotes around fun. Yes, it has an irritating dude shouting “fuck” at random intervals, but it also sounds like Death in Vegas covering “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and is thus worth the minor annoyance. “Phantoms Can’t Hang” is at least four minutes too long, but it also throbs with contagious affection for the artists whose sound it apes (Orbital, Underworld, and Paul Van Dyk, most notably). “Terrors in My Bread” is also too long by half, but it marries Ritchie Hawtin’s streamlined techno to Nine Inch Nails’ goth-cabaret extravagance surprisingly well. deadmau5 has always been, and may always be, an artist in need of a good editor, one with the clarity to help him separate the inspired ideas from the insipid ones, and the chutzpah to tell him when it’s prudent to just shut the hell up.