Iggy and the Stooges
Ready to Die
Fat Possum Records
Say what you will about Iggy Pop at 66, he remains tapped into the cultural zeitgeist. He knows what’s up. “I got a job, and it don’t pay shit.” “Simple people praise the Lord. Smarter people steal and hoard.” “If I had a fuckin’ gun, I could shoot at everyone.”
No one rises from his own ashes like Iggy, and after the awkward, tentative botch job of a Stooges reunion that was 2007’s The Weirdness, the brand is back — not because he’s suddenly remade Metallic K.O., but because Pop and Raw Power guitarist James Williamson have figured out how to weld the band’s original Detroit garage aesthetic to their leader’s artier solo ambitions. The result isn’t a return to form but a logical progression from it, a lost fourth album where the group (now sporting Minutemen legend Mike Watt on bass) ditches the menace for unblinking cynicism. Like a lot of aging protopunks, these guys make pretty damn good pop-rock bohemians.
The formula of Ready to Die is a lot like Power, right down to the flat production (not as muddy as the original’s mix, thank God) — midtempo rockers stuffed with attitude and a few dark ballads. While the snarl’s still there, the real surprise here is the clear-eyed and observant, almost cynical Iggy who steps out when things slow down, sort of Leonard Cohen on a low dose of Paxil. The acoustic “Unfriendly World” sounds almost fatherly until you realize that Pop’s new quiet croon is mumbling haunted verses like “Birthday cards from years ago / These will kill you slow.” “Beat That Guy” is the lost Johnny Cash American Recording, where Iggy faces the prospect of slinking off into the dark rather than try to be a badass one more time. And “The Departed” recycles old Stooges lyrics into a hushed mortality blues: “Party girls will soon get old / Party boys will lie then.”
This would be a depressing contrast if our boy didn’t still seem like he was getting off on his old persona, but anyone who can still find joy in a pair of tits like he does in “DD’s” is probably not ready to give up just yet. That song also pays homage to his hometown by applying Williamson’s crunchy guitars to a surprisingly effective Motown pastiche, signaling that not only does Pop still love rocking out, he’s feeling vital enough to take some chances while doing it. Now that he’s finally come to terms with himself, the Stooges can be his mouthpiece till the end. Existentially, however, he’s writhing around in something a lot scarier than broken beer bottles. Hence the title.
Innovation: 70. Other than those ballads, and the occasional honking sax of Fun House’s Steve Mackay, the differences are mostly lyrical.
Integrity: 82. Who knew Iggy would even live to get older, much less wiser?
Armin van Buuren
Now that EDM is taking over the world for reals, Armin van Buuren should be king. The “world’s number one DJ” has been at the forefront of trance for a decade now, but despite increasingly turning to pop artists in order to get across to radio, fratboy DJs like Skrillex and Pitbull keep passing him by on the way up.
There are a couple of reasons for this, none of which he addresses on his fifth studio album proper, Intense. He’s more interested in atmosphere than beats at a time when gimmicky beats are the new normal; the very nature of his marathon four-and-five hour sets rests on creating a mood that can’t possibly be replicated in three minutes; and his taste in pop collab is, frankly, pretty bad. Tangential, even. No a-listers for him. Worse, his signature mastery of tension-and-release is a technique that’s getting old fast.
Intense doesn’t have any stylistic tricks or musical curveballs up its sleeve like his last two albums, and Armin’s brought the expansive instrumental epics down to their barest minimum, which means he’s essentially assembling a producer’s mixtape for acts that largely don’t deserve it. At nearly nine minutes, the title track captures the energy of his live sets, and it dovetails nicely into the wistful if lightweight “This Is What It Feels Like.” But the heavy hitter on that track is the lead singer of soulDecision, a fly-by-night Canadian pop group, and it’s the kind of imbalance that cripples the album. Throughout, Armand’s surrounded by competent but hardly thrilling wannabees from Miley Cyrus and Jordin Sparks songwriters to rather anonymous session singers and bad Norse rockers.
Unsurprisingly for an artist weaned on Jean-Michel Jarre, van Buuren works best with classical artists, like returning Aussie pop-operatist Fiona (“Waiting for the Night”) and, on the title track, violinist Miri Ben-Ari. It says a lot about Armin’s career trajectory that the only rhythmically and emotionally intense track is “Turn This Love Around,” which was produced and written by Aussie sister duo Nervo; though they’ve worked for some questionable talent, they’re self-contained, DJs and songwriters both. It’s a trick van Buuren can’t learn fast enough.
Innovation: 48. The big set pieces that made his name are almost afterthoughts now.
Integrity: 44. Is pop royalty really too busy to work with this guy?