If you ever feel like zinging a music journalist with a single pithy quote, I’ll give you a free one: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Elvis Costello, Thelonius Monk, Laurie Anderson, Frank Zappa – the saying’s been attributed to any number of musical icons over the years. So obscured is its true origin it’s almost as if it always existed, a permanent reminder to self-important critics of the futility in pinning a badge to a shadow. The evidence seems to credit the phrase to comedian Martin Mull, but the ease with which it has been imagined in the mouths of so many probably speaks to its enduring practicality.
It’s also the phrase that comes to mind when trying to write about the endlessly enigmatic A. G. Cook. Since his online label PC Music materialised in 2013, Cook has confounded listeners by curating a kitsch brand of hyperpop that blurs the line between honesty and irony, going so far as to create a virtual popstar that may or may not still be laughing at our expense. It’d be easy to dismiss “Hey QT” as some kind of sarcastic comment on the artificiality of the Top 40, but it’s through his work with SOPHIE and Charli XCX that Cook has reconstructed artificial pop so painstakingly it’s now impossible to tell from the real thing.
Just when it seemed like Cook’s music could be contained to a niche corner of sarcasti-pop, last month he put out the nearly three hour project 7G, an inscrutable 49-song patchwork that flitted from IDM to drill and bass to progressive electronic. So where does Apple fit into all this? In many ways, Apple looks a lot more like a traditional ‘album’ than its older sibling. Slimmed down to forty minutes split between ten tracks, Apple has the feel of one cohesive whole when compared to 7G’s daunting monolith.
So after being lulled into a false sense of security, it’s all the more disorientating to forget that this is an A. G. Cook album. Production choices you might instinctively recoil from win you over through their unwavering pride. The opening synths on “Xxoplex” masquerade as peppy Euro-trance before disassembling into snarling deconstructed club; the cover of Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Animals” is one of several tracks where auto-tuned vocals are contrasted with acoustic guitar, as if Farrah Abraham tried her hand at being a singer-songwriter. Yet the combination results in one of the album’s most powerful moments.
Elsewhere, Cook does go for the emotional jugular through more typical means; album highlight “Airhead” takes its cues from one of Cook’s heroes Aphex Twin, reimagining “Flim”’s skittish breakbeats into a slice of downright euphoric electro-pop. But so often on Apple I find my usual critical faculties have withered away and died. Closing track “Lifeline” is an unapologetically storming synthwave power ballad that forces me to screw my eyes shut and mouth the lyrics in a way that more self-serious artists can’t make me do. By the time the song comes to its abrupt end, I open my eyes and wonder who that impassioned kid was that was madly screaming Cook’s lyrics just a moment ago.
Perhaps it’s Cook himself who describes it best on the single “Beautiful Superstar”: “I’ve run out of ways to define you / No I don’t want to use / The same old words”. When the ridiculous and sublime are collapsed into one unintelligible singularity, words fail to encapsulate what’s good and what’s not. If Cook is straddling the line between force and farce, he gets away with it since his tongue isn’t in his cheek but lolling out his mouth with a wink.
“It’s almost impossible to summarise the work of A. G. Cook”, reads the first line of 'Apple’s press release. Well, at least I tried.
Words: Sidney Franklyn
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