The Possibility of an Island/Michel Houellebecq-Vintage International
With the June, 2009 Atralwerks release of Preliminaires (the French word for foreplay), Iggy Pop returns to hip mainstream, NPR-style culture consciousness. Preliminaires allows Iggy to showcase his versatility, and versatility is an aspect of his act that can sometimes get lost in the mythological reaches of his godfather of punk” status. In short, with Preliminaires, Iggy allows the listener more than a glimpse of the thoughtful musician, treading more- intellectual, less-animalistic ground.
Instead of returning to the edgy, before-its-time sound of The Stooges (a sound that encouraged countless future punks and rockers to form bands and make their own noise), Iggy has created a different kind of an album incorporating his sometimes soulful singing with the playing of more than capable bandmates Hal Cragin and Marc Phaneuf, who apply a broad range of musical influences to the album’s 12 songs. The band’s effective use of jazz standards and blues fits well into this more introspective and literary-minded of concepts; a soundtrack to a novel.
The novel, in fact, is Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, a compelling, existentialist satire that “inspired” Iggy to craft and crib the engaging music found on Preliminaires. Every song relates to the novel either directly or indirectly, some even adapt Houellebecq’s metaphors successfully. For example, there’s the rocking, New Orleans-jazz flavored track like, ”King Of The Dogs,” which finds Iggy giving writing credit to Lil Hardin Armstrong (Louie’s wife). Other times, the singer reads straight from Houellebecq’s text, with only spare and slightly hypnotic keyboards and flamenco-style guitar playing in the background. Such is the case with “A Machine For Loving.”
Thankfully, Iggy keeps the spoken-word aspect to a minimum and concentrates on interpreting the themes of Houellebecq’s text in mostly musical ways. It is the themes of suffering and loyalty, themes that naturally arise from any serious meditation on love, which both singer and writer seem to be invested in. Iggy could scarcely have had a better text upon which to base this project, as Houellebecq does a fine job of trying to understand the timeless emotion of love by placing it in the context of 21st century showbiz.
The Possibility of an Island, set mostly in Spain, is a kind of literary cousin to Huxley’s Brave New World, but with a unique narrator in Daniel, who is a kind of European Lenny Bruce, every bit the social critic and lover of the flesh. The story of Daniel is told over millennia, starting in the present century and moving into the future. The chapters alternate between narrators, with Daniel handling the present-day while his clones narrate those chapters set in the future.
The use of an alternating narrator works nicely. Houellebecq’s strategy provides the reader with the necessary insight into Daniel’s character and his clone’s while maintaining the story’s continuity as it bounces between millennia. The clones are made from Daniel’s DNA by a sect he joins in the early 21st century.
This sect, called the Elohim, had the foresight to know that humans would one day end civilization with an apocalypse of their own devising. Daniel’s series of clones, which are all alone except for a dog named Fox, remain indoors, using only e-mail to stay in contact with other neohumans scattered through a destroyed world, surrounded entirely by bleak surroundings. In an interesting twist, Houellebecq has the neohumans surviving because they were developed to harness the process of photosynthesis.
The Possibility of an Island equates to the original Daniel’s last will and testament about his life, which ended in suicide over a one-sided love affair. The novel successfully deals with that most human of emotions, love, while questioning its relevance in an age that places idealized beauty and sex appeal ahead of everything else. It is in the face of unrequited love that Daniel searches his soul and enters into a self-imposed isolation from which he never recovers.
Iggy effectively uses these themes (suffering, loss, isolation), as his point of reference on this surprising project. Not surprisingly then, Preliminaires is most successful when Iggy is at his torchiest on jazz standards like “The Dead Leaves” (Autumn Leaves) and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s classic, “How Insensitive.” He smartly uses these covers sparingly, as too many would have devolved this album into the realm of tragic parody (think of Rod Stewart singing the Great American Songbook as a worst-case scenario of such soulless banality).
These delightful standards ground the album with their timeless quality. It’s also a cue to the listener that this is yet another resurrection of Iggy Pop’s unquestionable relevance as a singer and his ability to adapt. He’s a bit of a chameleon throughout Preliminaires. Perhaps it’s a nod to his Berlin days with David Bowie when Iggy penned the haunting, lovelorn original, “China Girl.” Here, he is no longer just the on-and offstage madman. At 62 years of age, Iggy seems to have a firm grasp of popular musical history and has weighed the risks of using such established repertoire.
The tracks on Preliminaires move quickly, with none going over the four minute mark. Book-ended by two similar versions of “The Dead Leaves” (Les Feuilles Mortes). the Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prevert standard is an inspired choice, with a mournful-sounding Iggy singing the heartfelt lyrics in French. The textured rhythm Hal Cragin lays down is tight and allows for Marc Phaneuf’s sweet clarinet playing to spread-out, yet leaves the listener wanting more of the woodwind.
“I Want to go to the Beach” is a more stripped down arrangement and reminiscent of his onetime-rival Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” The song encapsulates some of the book’s most heavy-hearted feelings of suffering and isolation. It also contains some of Iggy’s more cynical lyrics as he lashes out at lost love with these lines: “…you want to convince the world that you’re some kind of superstar/ when an asshole is what you are. And it’s alright…”
“King of the Dogs,” inspired by Louie Armstrong’s “King of the Zulus,” is a great example of Iggy’s willingness to branch out into different musical styles. Its use of a striking New Orleans-jazz tempo accompanied by traditional brass instruments has Iggy fairly growling the lyric. It’s also a song that works well on different levels. It plays on Iggy’s classic anthem, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” while it features Houellebecq’s character, Fox the dog, who exemplifies loyalty and unquestioning love. It’s pretty obvious that both Iggy and Houellebecq think the best of human attributes are represented by four paws and a tail.
“Je Sais Que Tu Sais” (I Know That You Know) features some heavy percussion and a hypnotic driving beat built on Lucie Amie’s French lyrics and is a trippy interlude. The background features Iggy’s seemingly disembodied voice chanting “She’s a business…” which picks up as another song entitled, “She’s A Business” a few tracks later.
“Spanish Coast” is spacy and atmospheric, like a lovely soul being set out to sea. Cragin’s guitar-work and Kevin Hupp’s deliberate drumming keep this one from veering into the morose. “Nice to be Dead” is a more straightforward rocker that gives a nod to bands like Jane’s Addiction or Nirvana without a hint of cynicism.
“How Insensitive” is a heartfelt and spare rendition of the Jobim classic. Iggy seems to be channeling Bowie or Chet Baker here with his splendid, deep-voiced croon. “He’s Dead, She’s Alive” has Iggy on acoustic guitar, paying homage to the influence of the Chicago blues on his formative years. It is another gem on this interesting album that breaks new ground by using the tried and true to make the statement.
In short, Preliminaires is more than the sum of the different musical elements Iggy draws from__ it’s a modern day throwback that trades in literary inspiration, Armstrong and Jobim, and Howlin’ Wolf-like Chicago blues. Even the album art by Marjane Satrapi of Perseopolis-fame contributes to the payoff: Iggy doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to gives us something completely new from him.