A. G. Cook – Britpop

The PC Music producer distorts time and homegrown music lore on this high-volume odyssey...

Hot off his three-night residency at Camden’s Underworld, A.G. Cook releases his third studio album ‘Britpop’; a three-part, 24-song odyssey through Cook’s agenda-setting, genre-bending vision of pop music, blurring the lines between nostalgia and innovation, past sounds with future-facing experimentation.

The first disc, aptly titled ‘Past,’ delves into Cook’s signature electronic style, and pulsates with the euphoria of his era-defining label PC Music’s sonic genesis, infusing electrifying beats with an energy that courses through the veins of the type of hyper-electronic music Cook helped define. Tracks ‘You Know Me’ and ‘Prismatic’, literally fragment past sounds to create a kaleidoscopic reflection of quote-unquote hyperpop. It is a celebration, or perhaps a mourning, of that indescribable neon buzz and bass thump – that ecstasy – coursing through the electrified veins of sound while simultaneously exploring the paradox of nostalgia in modern pop music.

What does it say about me that the nostalgic parts of the album resonate the most? The trap of hankering for the past and the late-capitalist images of dystopia woven throughout PC Music’s discography have, now, become something so over-saturated. In the late 90s, rave and underground culture had all but been forgotten about, and not considered part of the musical landscape and lore of mainstream Britain. Towards the end of the Britpop era, the culture was centered around bands like Oasis and Blur, who created music that was nostalgic and backward-looking. What A.G. did with PC Music was much more experimental; on a mass-cultural level, he predicted a future still, and perhaps always, in throes to a yearning back to the past. This album’s title, ‘Britpop’, is a clever re-marketing (PC Music and hyperpop were nothing if not codexes written in the language of marketing) of more than just a genre but an idea that has since been equally diluted, misinterpreted, and used as anthems for everything wrong with Britain.

Disc two, ‘Present,’ finds its sound in something more akin to the traditional essence of Britpop and moves beyond the oft-proclaimed “death of hyperpop” to embrace a rebirth, a more tender, vocal-forward schism; songs pried from within the fissures, the lacunae, the tears of contemporary pop, emerge and nestle somewhere between the first’s nostalgic charm and disc three’s forward-thought. Tracks like ‘Greatly’ harken back to the shiny colours of hyperpop’s origins, while ‘Without’ serves as a musical ex-voto to the late SOPHIE, intertwining her lyrics (“I can make you feel better, if you want to”) with Cook’s own heartfelt reflections (“An emptiness, a silhouette / I never guessed the loudest sounds are hollow”) as a testament to the enduring power of her music. Even reinterpreted, and buried within new melodies, her music still invokes feeling.

In the final act, ‘Future’, Cook unapologetically embraces the so-called “guilty pleasures” of the past. He draws from its rich history, eccentricity, and pseudo-mystical allure, the concept of “Britishness” itself while, in chorus, he propels us into uncharted sonic territory, offering his own vision of what lies ahead in the world of pop music. ‘Soulbreaker,’ originally a demo for ‘Apple‘ that found new life in a blend of classic power ballad, EDM, and classical piano, again finds Cook re-imagining familiar sounds in fresh and unexpected ways. As he puts it, “I enjoy the fact that many of these songs have had their own existence before,” underscoring the album’s insistence on continuity and evolution.

The irony is not lost on me about the amount of time that “the future of pop” has been affixed to Cook’s PC Music cohort and their now-classic sound. Charli XCX (whose shimmered vocals appear chopped and tangled throughout this album), predicted in late 2023 a shift towards minimalism in pop music, a guiding mantra for her upcoming album, ‘BRAT’, for which Cook returns as lead producer. Here, Cook examines minimalism from all angles, embracing its ethos while not being scared to keep pushing the boundaries of his sonic experimentation.

Contrast is crucial. While many discussions of electronic music revolve around layering and complexity, even the most intricate or maximalist element within a piece of music often coexists with aspects that are minimal, raw, or simplistic. Cook, in particular, seems to understand the power of juxtaposition, seamlessly blending diverse elements to create a rich and dynamic sonic landscape. For example, on ‘Pink Mask,’ his voice emerges like a crackling ember amidst an eerie choir, weaving fantastical non-sequiturs (“Frost on the stained-glass window / membranes stacked in the catacombs”) into a dreamlike spiral that diverges sharply from the familiar terrain of the preceding tracks, carving out a distinct space of its own.

8/10

Words: Bryson Edward Howe

Photo Credit: Timothy Luke

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