Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned
ven before anyone heard Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, it was indisputable that The Prodigy had dropped the ball. That ball was the future of electronic music in the US mainstream, which, after the top 40 success of “Firestarter” and the MTV support of “Breathe,” The Prodigy had been (perhaps mistakenly) entrusted with. Back in 1997, The Prodigy were at the forefront of the Big Beat acts (including The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and Bentley Rhythm Ace) invading the US, propelled just as much by “frontman” Keith Flint’s pointy hair and spastic stage antics as mastermind Liam Howlett’s hyper-kinetic breakbeats and brilliant Breeders and Art of Noise samples.
Riding the coattails of those two huge hit singles, The Prodigy victoriously debuted at #1 with The Fat of the Land, an album many expected to cement electronic music’s “next big thing” status and permanently bring Big Beat above ground. It was only a temporary success, however, as critics found the album disappointing and formulaic and third single “Smack My Bitch Up” was consigned to late-night airplay on MTV due to its controversial (though arguably brilliant) video. OK, many thought, they’ll get it right next time.
But there was no next time. For a group that had released a single or album every year since the beginning of the decade, The Prodigy were suddenly disarmingly quiet. And in the meantime, there was no one to pick up their slack—The Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk were too anonymous to ever make much of a lasting impression, and though Fatboy Slim’s success was undeniable, it was far more for his clever Spike Jonze-directed videos than his music. Big Beat steadily disappeared from mainstream consciousness, and The Prodigy were still nowhere to be found.
Flash to 2004, and fans are having a hard time finding a reason to believe. But after lead single “Girls” surfaced, it felt like that fear had been misplaced. A sexy, delirious electro pastiche, “Girls” saw The Prodigy lightening up for the first time in ages, leaning towards a direction that few anticipated.
But even more unexpected is the sound of the rest of the album. The bombast, the fury and the hip guest vocalists fromThe Fat of the Land are still all in tact, but what’s gone is the excitement. When “Firestarter” landed in 1996, most people had never heard anything like it before, but now that people have spent eight years having The Prodigy and their ilk providing the soundtrack to every action movie, video game and extreme sports commercial, it doesn’t quite have the same effect.
What’s far worse, however, is that The Prodigy expect that bombastic sound to be enough to carry the album. Take leadoff track “Spitfire,” which bears most of the trademarks of Fat opener “Smack My Bitch Up”—the industrial guitars, screeched vocal hooks, the hazy middle eastern-tinged female coos and the bad-ass attitude. The problem is the song never actually takes off. The beat pummels, but never resembles anything danceable, and the hooks are all too clumsy and bullying to be at all catchy or even interesting.
And sad enough, that’s about as good as it gets. Over the course of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’s 12 songs, the album’s variety extends solely to which poorly used guest vocalist graces the track, including predictable choices like Kool Keith and Big Beat favorite Liam Gallagher and bizarre choices like Natural Born Killers actress Juliette Lewis and tongue-twisting hit rapper Twista. None of these superstars make much of an impression, at best merely distracting from the bluster of the backing tracks.
Oh yeah, “Girls” is still here, and it’s the only thing that saves the album from being completely worthless. Unfortunately, it’s placed early enough in the running order that it’s not much anticipated and quickly forgotten. And from there, nothing to look forward to except the slight novelty of hearing the Shocking Blue (via Nirvana) track “Love Buzz” turned electro, and naturally, even more evil sounding. Besides that, the album is absolutely interminable.
Were Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned released in 1999 when everyone else was releasing their mediocre post-big beat follow-up album, though it would still be unlistenable, it would also be excusable. But for The Prodigy to arrive at the after-party five years too late and with barely anything new to bring is the ultimate insult to the fans that were stuck with the unenviable position of defending them for almost a decade against overwhelming evidence. When (or, realistically, if) Liam Howlett releases a follow-up album in 2010, he can expect to find himself fresh out of friends to disappoint.