As he himself promised, El-P’s new album, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, is less personal than its predecessor, the solo debut Fantastic Damage (2002). Where that album to a large extent was introspective, this one presents a more distanced perspective. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a panorama to Fantastic Damage‘s kaleidoscope.
Although the nerve and the noise are the same, El-P has developed as a musician over the five years it has taken. Generally, the sound is less abrasive despite the foundation being the same noisy, megaton b-boy steez as always. We are still dealing with unadulterated dystopian New York hardcore, but El has developed the symphonic approach to production nascent on the last album. The grandly conceived soundscapes of cuts like “Stepfather Factory” and “Innocent Leader” are here given room to breathe. Several of the tracks are allowed to unfold and develop over longer run times and at times become almost narrative.
Which is fitting since the record is almost a concept album. It is conceived as a whole, and both on the thematic and the musical level it presents the listener with a coherently developing sequence, which begins by gazing upon the urban youth of the West and its place in the world. Slowly, the layers are peeled back and internal as well as external experience are revealed to us: the thin line between love and hopelessness and the release in state-authorized violence and religious delusion. At the end, we are back where we started, amongst our endless “League of Extraordinary Nobodies,” but now, claustrophobically, the point of view is from the inside.
The opening, “Tasmanian Pain Coaster,” is a real tour-de-force. El-P meets a faceless comrade on a subway platform and listens reluctantly to his story. His hoodie covers most of his face, but he has an empty gaze in his eyes, a gun in his pocket and blood on his shoelaces. He says he believes in “justice for my very own amusement/ with no regard for the conclusion/ I swagger with rats tappin’ the glass in a government lab,” that he is “cacklin’ at the randomness of the city and all its facts,” and signs off with “in other words I’m trash/ glad you asked.” The track shifts between shuffled handclaps and a crisp, syncopated beat on a buzzing bassline and a panorama of sound effects setting the dystopian scene.
This opens the listener to the incontrovertible banger of the album, the single “Smithereens” — the “Deep Space 9mm” of the present album. The cut is a kind of reiteration of that track on which El — cryyyyin’, as the refrain reminds us — charts his position at the bottom of the city, with the anti-authoritarian ethos of hip hop running through his veins, “when I step in the stop frame I became pure BK/ cause I grew up around the krazy kings and inhaled second hand spray/ where walls talk your defiances and alliances were made”, and with the verbal artillery honed and at the ready, “I’ll rip your squad in nothing but a cock ring and a pair of puerto-rock dunks/ I built the bag that cats will drown in when the water’s colored rust.” And with its resoundingly pounding rhythm and cacophonic soundscape, the track is instant headnod, fist in the air shit. Classic El-P.
Through a large part of the album, this simpler, hard-hitting, more classical production style dominates, solidly but with varying degrees of success. On the mic, he some of the time works with a more clipped, at times staccato delivery than usual, where individual lines are isolated somewhat instead of flowing. One some tracks, like “Smithereens” it works perfectly, but on others like the urban hymns “Up All Night” and “No Kings,” on which the writing is also below average, it becomes slightly repetitive.
El-P has always run close to the bathetic, his grim outlook risking descent self-parody. He usually avoids these pitfalls through his strong production and original song concepts, but this time around there are unfortunately a number of instances of the former becoming too demonstrative and latter depending a little too strongly on pathos. An example is the melancholy I-love-you-but-I-can’t-control-myself breakup song, “The Overly Dramatic Truth,” which does not live up to the touching standard set by “TOJ” on the last album, and which is undermined somewhat by overly literal production. Worse, however, is the war conceit “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)”, where he talks from the viewpoint of an executioner for a brief moment imagining a life spent in love with his victim before he pulls the trigger. El’s storytelling is not quite on par with his signature vivid picaresques, and the grandly conceived track becomes an insistent score to the story rather than an independent composition.
Throughout, the lyrics tend to mirror the meaninglessness of urban life and war as sanctuary. This is done with bravura on the cruising song “Drive” where the sense of freedom experienced through driving is channeled into a dusty Hummer with inadequate armor — “my generation is carpooling with death and disease” — and on the energetic description of life as a minesweeper (“find those detonators!”) “Run the Numbers,” which also features Aesop Rock. Most stirring, however, is the single “Flyentology” on which El along with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails describes the feeling of salvation in the free fall towards martyrdom over dramatic syncopation and a screeching guitar, “I wanna live so bad/ all my life I’ve been so arrogant/ this is the vessel of my ‘wakening/ please father put your hand out/ carry it.”
The production on I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is thoroughly virtuosic, and on the conceptual side it offers a number of El-P’s best ideas to date. It even contains some of his best lyrics. This in itself makes it a masterful effort, but at times it becomes a little too ostentatious and makes one miss the rougher sound on its predecessor somewhat. Quite understandably, the intensely personal tone of that album has been toned down in favor of a more mature but also at times less touching outlook. In its least inspired moments it presents highly ambitious, but also rather pompous hip hop, while it in its best fortunately marks a significant step forward for one of the genre’s most intelligent and original artists.