When John Harris lamented, six months after the election of Cameron’s coalition government in 2010, that pop music was now devoid of social protest, and appealed to ‘some unknown neurotic outsider, stranded in God-knows-where’ to ‘pick up a guitar and howl their outrage’, his prematurely senile rockism hit on a partial truth. It was true that, in the ferment of occupations and protests of the austerity years that followed, grime and other grassroots electronic music occasionally became a language of discontent – from Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow!’ being played at the November 2010 Parliament Square kettle to Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’. But it still often seemed that sonic innovation, particularly in the world of dance music, and political speech diverged.
The strands of political consciousness distributed throughout electronic dance music’s history, from its origins in queer and African-American subcultures to the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, were usually invoked in the same breath that makes dance a special place of immediacy, the site of an empiricist ethic of pleasure and abandonment that treats musical progress as secondary to consumption. But this continued a quandary that had presented the British left since Red Wedge – that of combining political bite, populist appeal, and properly contemporary aesthetics. The music that Harris, following the Red Wedge model, valourised sacrificed experiment at the altar of a putative popularity, trusting in the communicative power of a traditional guitar music that, among actual working-class people, had lost much of its appeal.
It was in the midst of this contradiction, in 2012, that Jack Latham released Classical Curves, his debut album under the name Jam City. Its astonishing rhythmic Cubism shared some similarities with the subgenre that music critic Adam Harper called, in an essay published that summer, ‘distroid’: a high-definition technophilic music that took commercialised versions of subcultural sounds and drove them ‘with an often religious or apocalyptic fervour, into the futuristic, lurid and brutal sensual territory that they were already bordering on’. Distroid was deeply ambivalent about its dystopia, luxuriating in the imagined brutality of an accelerated form of capitalist development. Hidden in the sleevenotes of Classical Curves was a sign that that this wasn’t the future Latham’s music wanted: ‘THERE ARE OTHER WORLDS THAN THIS’.
It found its rhyme in the video for ‘Unhappy’, the lead track from a very different follow-up in early 2015: as the camera floated through a banal world of suburban high streets, armed police, screaming tabloids, and payday loan shops, it closed with the message ‘STOP BEING AFRAID. ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE.’ That album, Dream A Garden, shared some similarities with its predecessor, most obviously in the abstract crunch of its percussion. But now its high tech sounded decayed and overgrown with weeds, breaking through hazy, guitar-led songs.
In statements and interviews around its release, Latham fixed an unmistakable position against ‘ideologies of selfishness and hatred… greed, violence, and the impossible ideals that gloat from every surface of our cities.’ He spoke of the 2011 riots, when austerity Britain’s dismal consensus reality seemed briefly to evaporate and he found himself facing the police with his south London neighbours, an experience evoked in the love song ‘Crisis’: ‘we stand under a writhing sky/spit at another Foxton’s sign’. Although he claimed to have never abandoned sonic experimentation or dance music, it seemed that dance—particularly in London, where the dynamics of the club scene have had an uneasy relationship with gentrification—couldn’t contain that experience.
Neither, it often seemed in the years that followed, could culture in general. For that sense of political rupture emerged not into music as subculture, whose politics in Britain remained generally muted, confused, or inconclusive, but into Corbynism. The notion of ‘Acid Corbynism’, coined by Jeremy Gilbert and adapted from Mark Fisher’s late work, suggested the extent to which Corbynism’s social movement component borrowed—perhaps wishfully—from the structures of feeling of rave culture, though not its musical aesthetics. The early period of Momentum and accompanying events like The World Transformed hinted at a populist fervour and an expanded conception of politics that hinted at a potential break with the post-Red Wedge conundrum – an articulation of possibility that evaporated even before Labour’s 2019 general election defeat.
Dream A Garden and Latham’s third album, Pillowland, released at the end of 2020, bookend the Corbyn years. And despite the evaporation of the left populist moment in Corbynism, the album’s mood often seems like an encrypted dream of that period, with all the disquiet and unexpected lacunae of dreams. What had seemed to be a tentative exploration of the blocked relation between liberation and (dance) culture in the former has become, in the latter, its central and unmentioned topic, transformed by a kind of musical fission into electrifying pop. It represents yet another turn in his work, back towards bold instrumental contrast and textural overload, in an attempt to reconcile songwriting and club music. The album fizzes with a sort of Internet 3.0 update of Prince’s language of cartoon joy circa Around The World In A Day, lingering in the tense gap between real life and pop. But this may be best understood as a political gesture, an aesthetic probing of the political possibilities in electronic music culture produced and eclipsed in the last decade.
The most striking thing is the new, but still obscure, role of the voice on the album. Where on Dream A Garden Latham’s vocals were buried in sluggish currents of reverbed guitar, on Pillowland they dart through the mix like sparks. But the lyrics are often even less audible, the voice now distorted by effects that fissure words into syllables or turn it into a high-pitched, androgynous glide mid-way through a line. Filters and advanced digital mixing, adjusting the contrasts, contours, and texture of each element moment to moment, become themselves as much an instrument as the guitar or synthesisers.
Mark Fisher observed that the effects-masked vocals of post-dubstep producer James Blake’s work summoned up ‘virtual’ songs, ‘implied or partially disassembled’, that the traditional, full-voiced tracks of his 2011 debut album dissipated. Something like the reverse is at work on Pillowland: the song is revealed, but every component, from the instrumental melody lines to the succession of parts (verse, chorus, bridge, and so on) to the message of the vocals, has absorbed a psychedelic instability. At the same time, this chaos is contained in the joyous articulation of pop songwriting and its traditional meanings, a process to which Latham’s recent experience producing for Kelela, Troye Sivan, and others contributes. It brings together the high-tech methods of distroid with the candy-coloured apparitions of past music—glam rock,’80s R&B, the vocoder funk of Zapp—not now, as Fisher remarked of contemporary culture, ‘the same old things on higher definition screens’, but the elements of a libidinally charged, estranged pop music.
The few moments where lyrics are audible or emerge over repeated listens point to an intensely personal conception of politics. ‘Climb Back Down’, released as a single, speaks of personal autonomy and self-respect in the same register, inflected by the history of the civil rights movement, as’70s soul: ‘Do I have to get down on my knees?/But I stand my ground/Demand respect/And nothing less/Nothing less’. Latham has spoken of the importance of aesthetics in political music, using the example of the great Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier: ‘If you can get a good sounding song you can kind of say anything, really… It’s important for me that if I’m gonna try and get a message across or talk about things that it’s somewhat well-written.’ Politics unfixes from the local habitation of the party form or even the protest, and becomes the whole emotional environment of a song.
The album’s repeated invocations of joy—as on ‘Sweetjoy’, ‘Cartwheel’, or closer ‘Cherry’—has a wilful quality, but one that gives up will and ego in its realisation, collapsing into tired riff loops in the tracks’ quiet moments. ‘I Don’t Want To Dream About It Anymore’ is a love song that opposes dreams—that traditional repository of anarchist hopes—to life, demanding, amid a faded vibraphone loop and snares that stir up storms of static, to not have to ‘close my eyes’ and retreat inwards to past fantasies.
The seeming absence of a coherent political message, even compared to the veiled or abstract protests of Dream…, in fact points to a politics articulated outside of the paralysed realm of John Harris and co. Where, pre-Corbyn, it often seemed in the UK that music could only register protest by turning inward towards formal experiment, after Corbyn, Pillowland is all extroversion, constructing a shared fantasy in its efflorescence of pop texture. All the virtues prized by Harris—clarity of political articulation, the performance of easily tagged emotions like rage and spite, tidy and legible arrangements—are inverted. Politics are sutured to the sonic at every level.
In some ways it resembles the pre-Corbyn state of the extra-parliamentary left, committed to the insubstantial forms of Invisible Committees and Temporary Autonomous Zones. The dream of Pillowland, only partially connected to a mass politics that flashes to the surface but momentarily, as in last summer’s BLM protests, is solid and coherent, but flushed with dream-texture. The understandable wish to listen ‘beyond’ the effects-scarred surface to some pristine political content beneath—the urge that guides the Harrises of this world—misunderstands politics and art after the eclipse of the parliamentary left, which can trust only in their own substance, and must grasp at the figments of a more solid future through their processes of imagination and discovery. The pop music that Pillowland imagines would gather the experiences of social democratic parties, in their disappearance and de-realisation, into the cultural avantgarde that can no longer live outside politics.