The Juan Maclean
Less Than Human
few days ago, a friend of mine had his debit card eaten by a faulty ATM just after closing. Cashless and cardless, he got the attention of someone inside the bank and asked for help retrieving his card. The employee told him there was nothing he could do, and my friend responded, "If you don't get me my card, I'm going to start kicking that ATM." Machines are fallible; people are violent and ridiculous.
With a title like Less Than Human, the auteur Juan Maclean suggests an inability to arise to the passion of humanity, to be direct and accurate, but unfeeling and robotic. Just months after Daft Punk played at James Murphy's house and declared themselves to be Human After All (and, in this instance, fallible), Maclean hints at a regression from actual life to data.
The Juan Maclean takes the mechanized side of music, the Kraftwerk precision and automated bass, but injects it with a personal, human vision and unmet, unwanted desires. When people talk about emotional electronic music, they too often go for adjectives like "warm" and "organic," but neither term accurately applies to Maclean's creations. In his perfectly-crafted self-expression (created, surprisingly by live musicians) Maclean drives further and further into holes, even as his inanimate instruments beg you to get to the dancefloor.
The machines resist the spirit. "Crush the Liberation," riding the funkiest bass since Michael Jackson was recognizable as human, nods at war, but it's mechanized sound professes a distaste for the liberation of musical self into improv and exploration. Yet, Maclean (working here with LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy and Nancy Whang) sounds limitless; it's a freedom made possible by the structure of restraint, in which synthesizers, basses, and percussion find more space within their strictures than most.
For all the electro-accuracy of the grooves and the surface nods to robots, Maclean looks further inward than you would expect from the sound he pushes out. For all the pure, Latin-tinged joy of "Tito's Way" (you can guess who Tito is), there are steady pulses of nihilism and enclosure. Maclean describes "Shining Skinned Friend" as "a track about the frustration of the persistent alienation from affection." What the album elucidates, though, is the response that rejects that feeling of frustration. While the rejection enables the pleasure of "Tito's Way" and the hedonsim of "Give Me Every Little Thing," it also opens up the less-than- and all-too-human emptiness expressed throughout the rest of the disc.
"Love Is In the Air" offers titular hope, but musically, it beats down the optimism. The cartoony bassline and the flute (although Maclean claims to offer hope with it) derides the sensibilities of someone seeking solace in such a cliched sensibility. You'll bob your head happily, but the excessive presentation undercuts any feeling of comfort you let yourself develop.
"In the Afternoon": a good time to do coke. If you're going to slowly kill yourself, why the hell not do so in a way that gives you a comfortable come-down. "Wait until it's dark / Before you step into the light" doesn't suggest you need to bottom out before you can feel good again; it simply a suggestion for drug usage. The development of who gives a fuck continues.
And yet this music, for all Maclean's emptying of emotional detritus, both pleasing pebbles and malignant sediment, sounds beautiful. The Juan Maclean closes the album with "Dance With Me" and its Nancy Whang vocal. The opening two minutes sound like a decision to get drunk at home or to go out and get drunk alone surrounded by people. Whang's vocals requesting a dance portray the emptiness of someone who's been around the block one too many times, but can't stop driving; someone not feeling up to accepting a whore's payment. Over the course of the song's fourteen minutes, though, Maclean builds a spirit. It isn't human epiphany; it's closer to a note-by-note construction of sense, undergirded by the idea that you have to believe in emotion before you're capable of feeling. The keyboard wavers, unwilling to accept it.
The song doesn't give up anything. It's hard to think when you're tipsy and depressed, but you don't need to think—let the machines do that for you. It's enough to keep going sometimes. If you feel less than human, well, so have I. I'm choosing to keep dancing, no matter how little I feel like it sometimes.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: JULY 11 – JULY 17, 2005