Hidden (Domino, 2010)
by These New Puritans
originally published at Dusted Magazine

"Some hearts bleed / So do these / Some sounds can put tides in seas"

Suddenly, These New Puritans mean business. (Frankly, it’s good to see them meaning anything.) Compared to the negation-for-negation’s-sake attitude of their debut, Beat Pyramid, Hidden sounds serious, holistic, exacting and expensive. It rounds up an army of unlikely and seemingly irreconcilable sounds — cheap video game effects, dignified woodwind lulls, pussyfoot-and-stomp dancehall beats, serene Reichian chimes — and constructs a complicated edifice of pomp and portent. Apocalypse jams, cryptic prophecies, visions of nature outliving civilization. Calls to action, too, but lord knows what kind of action. This is a world attack this is a sound attack this is a word attack this is a mind attack this is a world attack. This is music you can pretty easily imagine soundtracking large international weaponry deals.

Why and how that is has something to do with the twisted logic TNPS started hawking on Beat Pyramid, whereby some colors are invisible and every number has a meaning (check out, by the way, the simple numeral system coined on Hidden‘s track listing). Each sound and phrase and juxtaposition in said complicated edifice signifies nothing, and also somehow more than itself; the band gets a lot of interpretive mileage from the obscurity surrounding that “somehow.” About 70% of the beats here are menacing, not because they’re loud or sharp or martial but because they’re flimsy — and there’s no good explanation why. What makes These New Puritans more than a band who are good at layering polyrhythms and great at late-modern sloganeering (“I don’t think the stars are symbols / But let’s find out”) is that the reasons unifying their weird instrumental decisions and deliberately catatonic lyrics are, well, hidden.

"No longer human / You are a weapon / Used for [inaudible]"

Equally fascinating, equally frustrating, is that TNPS take their occult mystique and do nothing with it. If M.I.A. had written the reptilian “Attack Music” — as she clearly could have, and maybe still will — she’d have made its 9/11 resonances plain, its bare-minimum chorus rousing (“It was September, harmful logic / It was September, this is attack music”); helmed by Jack Barnett and co., it’s elliptical and even self-censored, alternately chilling and grating. The whole network of repetitions across Hidden — the winds from “Time Xone” in “Fire Power,” the soothsaying lyrics from “Orion” in “5” — strives toward some kind of coherence, and the band almost always cuts it off at the last minute. Barnett breaks the train of thought to shout a tautology a few times, or a huge percussion break drowns him out and the lyric doesn’t make it into the selective liner notes. TNPS make a point, arguably an art, of avoiding commitment to meanings.

So much the better, maybe; their squeamishness about getting caught endorsing one may be the most generationally relevant thing they have to offer. (It’s also the only really important difference between their sense of gesture and that of Radiohead, who took a longer route from a different starting point but have arrived at more or less the same post-cool cool.) When they get down to the business of symbolism, anyway, as on the paranoid lullaby “White Chords,” whose ambitiously poetic lyrics are spared most of the album’s self-deflating strategies, it’s simply not as interesting as all the parts that refuse to coalesce around a statement.

"My words evaporate / My words evaporate / evaporate / evaporate / My words"

Instead, there are components. Components that jut forth and recede and, as with Beat Pyramid, come together only occasionally as something that’s more rewarding to listen to than to pick apart. (Best out of context, such as it is: “Three Thousand,” “Hologram,” and maybe “5.”) Components, like loud saber-unsheathing noises or references to Galahad and Memnon and Osiris, that either telegraph meaning or feign it, or else mock the impulse to look for it at all. In what’s beginning to feel like a crucially contemporary way, These New Puritans are preternaturally good at obscuring the sum of the parts, and in making the resulting uncertainty seem like a truth that may one day save you.