The idea behind Silicon’s new album, Personal Computer, seemed a bit passe to me. Producing a piece of art centred on the tech-addicted automatons of the 21st century was obvious to say the least. Tropes about being alone in a vast digital fortress of faceless avatars, or losing one’s identity in the monster of online self-representation, have been strummed by some rather uncouth hands. I was struck with a sense that my assumptions were to be confirmed when I pressed play on Personal Computer. The title track begins with the voice of a broken, out-of-battery Bender (I miss you so Futurama) stating, “Never be lonely. Personal Computer. Someone that is listening. Personal Computer.” But, Nielson’s mostly pessimistic critique of the faux reality of pixels, is given via the textured, beat-flecked medium of soul and funk. Nielson’s future-soul-funk and his honeyed voice serve as the perfect vessels for us Apple-poisoned technophiles.
Personal Computer just sounds so good. Silicon is a master of retooling all the best that the 70s and 80s has to offer. He employs synths like voices; they move up and down, harmonise, and break into solo runs. The bass line always bounces in this oblique, off-centre way that gives the album’s general sleepiness an awakened flexibility. It is funny because, at some points, it feels like the sonic circus that Nielson has rallied will collectively collapse into a deep drowse. But, he always manages to flick just enough retro-funk, or jazz into the mix to enliven the beat. Something has to be said for Nielson’s voice, which warbles in this dark D’angelo-esque way, especially when he lifts it into falsetto and crackles and shakes with control.
I am really digging the saccharine sound of Personal Computer, not only because it is nice to listen to, but also because it evinces a clever irony. By carefully engineering the sonic resurrection of soul and funk in savvy silicon form, Nielson suggests that the technocracy has slipped its fingers into the production process. It is the splicing of genres; the glitzy, almost-pixellated post-pop; the manufactured soul of future soul. Nielson uses it all to not only make beautiful music, but also to imitate and, by so doing, parody the internet’s non-life, its flaccid and false copying of ‘the real’. Whilst this might be seen by some as a high-minded, disconnected experiment, I would argue that the record captures both sonically and lyrically the ubiquitous immersion of the 21st century in technology. Nielson declares this in Submarine where a disfigured voice beckons, “Follow me/To the sea,” or in Cellphone’s proclamation, “My body’s in the water, it’s colder than we think.”
It was not too long ago that Kody Nielson could be seen alongside his brother Ruben (now frontman of Unknown Mortal Orchestra) vomiting out rage, whilst manhandling their audience with their signature schizo-pop volcanism. When a member of The Mint Chicks, Nielson had channeled the indignation of his contemporaries in punk noise-experimentation. Now, Nielson has exchanged his pointed barbarism for the smooth gossamer-net of funk-soul. Rather than beat us, and all proximate instruments, with the reality of our disempowerment, Silicon has chosen to wrap us with silky synths, fat funk and multi-instrumental musings. Whilst it is a dramatic evolution – from knockabout screamer and noisemaker to weaver of digital age-critiquing sex music – Nielson has produced a memorable, and perspicacious record.