Intriguingly, there are two “official” versions of Lindstrøm & Christabelle’s Real Life Is No Cool. The first, available for purchase through the stalwart U.K. indie Rough Trade, features startlingly irritating reversed vocals in the intro to the otherwise pumping first track, “Looking for What.” The second version, apparently the one available from your friendly neighborhood Internet mp3 store of choice, ditches the truly jarring intro and slightly dials back the dub-experimentalism of the penultimate track, “Never Say Never,” while subtly popping up the mixes throughout.
Even though the Rough Trade version also includes a disc full of engaging remixes (including a truly banging Aeroplane take on the album’s kinda-first single, “Baby Can’t Stop”), as well as Lindstrøm’s staggering 43-minute take on “Little Drummer Boy,” it’s almost certainly not the case that the different versions represent a nefarious attempt to soak revenue from Lindstrøm completists. It’s much more likely that existence of two slightly different versions is simply a particularly revealing mistake. Because as far as the two versions go, the one with the milder beginning is much more successful.
Let’s back up a bit. In both incarnations, Real Life Is No Cool is a creamy, luscious sequence of classically structured pop-funk tracks glittering with Lindstrøm’s trademark brand of space dust. Formally, the work here is light years away from the proggier, more sprawling galaxies he’s recently navigated; Christabelle’s languid yet charismatic, definitive yet hazy vocals are given properly emphatic productions.
Given the precedent set by prior collaborations “Music in Your Mind” and “Let’s Practise,” both of which appear here, it’s no surprise that Giorgio Moroder remains a touchstone, the animal spirit inside every swirling sine-wave synth line. The record’s significant debts to Prince, whose “I Would Die 4 U” is both referenced and evoked by the album’s gorgeously aching centerpiece “Keep It Up,” and Michael Jackson, who is similarly honored in “Baby Can’t Stop,” are considerably less predictable. Lindstrøm and Christabelle manage to summon these ghosts without seeming to bat an eyelash or break a sweat, which is frankly how they get away with it. Indeed, Lindstrøm is nothing if not confident in his choices throughout, perhaps best demonstrated on “Lovesick,” a laser-focused three-minute stomp defined by slow-motion strutting guitar that calls to mind Dr. Dre’s ability to appropriate funk licks wholesale, twist them around a bit, and in so doing make theft seem like a moral imperative.
In interviews, Lindstrøm has explained that he and Christabelle recorded the vocals for this project at one time, and that he then manipulated bits and pieces of her performances to compose the arrangements. It’s an approach that underlines the album’s most subtle problems. As might be deduced, the vocals most often read as particularly engaging textures rather than any sort of expression of content—meaning that even though the pieces here are structured like songs and feature lyrics, they’re often not actually, strictly songs.
And Lindstrøm’s playful usage of samples of his vocal muse is a double-edged sword. In the opening moments of one of the album versions of “Let’s Practise,” Christabelle is quoted saying, smilingly, “I play the drums,” and scatting a view bars of rhythm. Lindstrøm then loops the rhythm into the intro for the track itself. The effect is loose and charming. This bit of fun is absent from the Rough Trade version of the record, which does not lack for its own, much less amusing and less successful vocal experiments. (Given that the record as a whole is coherently sequenced and flows from strength to strength, the impact the 20-30 seconds of aggressive digital throat-clearing has on the listener is really quite notable. It’s a bit like thinking about eating a delicious piece of cheesecake but then remembering that you have to chug a bowlful of tsetse flies first).
If there’s one thing Lindstrøm should know about by now, it’s sequencing. After all, the space disco don’s been telling (often epic) stories by selecting and ordering other peoples’ records for quite some time. And of course, that says nothing of his own precisely structured productions: Dude’s surefooted enough to program 30-minute odysseys that flow as naturally as pop songs. So it would have been surprising, to say the least, if his pop move managed to put the wrong foot forward.
It’s not often that the music release process gives so much insight into make-or-break creative decisions like the ones differentiating the two versions of Real Life is No Cool, so let’s all thank the music industry for their provision of this sort of teachable moment. Indeed, if there’s an official explanation for this discrepancy I’m sure many would love to hear it. But putting cynicism aside, it’s ultimately a positive thing that fans of cosmic-inflected pop-funk can choose a version of this excellent record that represents something much greater than the sum of its shiny, shiny parts.