Norman Cook’s got a lot to own up to. When he was with Fatboy Slim, his schtick was relatively new and astounding. He was a self-conscious pastiche-maker, postmodern to the max, with an unrivaled understanding of the importance of using music videos shamelessly in an era where selling out was no longer quite as stigmatized. You’ve Come a Long Way Baby had no business being a platinum seller in the U.S., but with a little help from the last great pre-Malkovich Spike Jonze video and endless movie appearances of “Rockafellar Skank,” it succeed commercially by being ahead of its time culturally.
That, however, is precisely the problem for Norman Cook 11 years later. Much like it is hard to blame Radiohead for Coldplay or the Talking Heads for A Flock of Seagulls, placing the blame of Girl Talk and countless inferior mash-up poseurs on the former rave DJ turned production pioneer seems misguided. Nonetheless, Cook will be forever identified with a rock ‘n’ roll movement that is so many degrees detached from originality that it brings to issue whether he knew what kinda monster he was truly latching on to. Furthermore, while Cook was doing all this in the go-go ’90s, his followers were acting in the Dick Cheney era — where the need for original, defiant art was sorely missed.
So while there’s surface-level kitsch in the more indie-minded Brighton Postal Authority — as the invented background goes, it’s a supposed ragtag group of recording artists from the 1970s, many of whom came to that era via time travel — there’s a deeper chain of seriousness and insightful, and inciteful, thought at work on I Think I’m Gonna Need a Bigger Boat. For a split second after seeing the included names, you make think there’s a hint of truth to the BPA legend: Most of the more famous of the contributors made their marks in the ’70s anyway. But the legitimate ’70s stars are outnumbered by the ’70s imitators that Cook spawned in Brighton. And the differences in how Cook handles the real ’70s stars from the fake ones is key to the whole conceit.
Early signs of Cook’s construction are apparent the new-wave opening track “He’s Frank” by Iggy Pop, the man whose legacy new wave supposedly destroyed. Meanwhile, David Byrne (with a rap interlude from Dizzee Rascal), given the most-fun-by-10-times track on the album: "Toe Jam,” made legendary last summer for its ’70s-porn-themed video that made art out of the censor bar. You’d never guess after watching that video just how unsexy Byrne’s lyrics are, but they’re practically a call for celibacy.
As for the pomo-era Port Authority members, however, Cook makes them earn their keep. They’re given some of the more sincere, grounded, softer sides of the album. While this doesn’t exclude the young ‘uns from producing the same level of quality — Emmy the Great’s “Seattle” may be the best track on the album — it’s a distinctly noble conceit in theory that ends up watering the album down in practice. Despite the album’s title, this is no summer blockbuster LP, much as it would have you believe going in.
Its marketing is a lot like what happened with In Bruges coming off Sundance last year: The flash draws you in, the heart leaves you perplexed. Yet, there’s a reason Pulp Fiction is a better movie than In Bruges, just as Odelay’s a better album than I Think We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat. The first time’s always a charm. Even if the artist who counters the cultural wake of the original is more noble in his goals, the correction to an overwhelming cultural trend is never as enticing as what made the trend catch on. Norman Cook’s concern for the state of his trade, while veiled in ironic drag, is hard to ignore. It’s what makes the BPA tick, but also what keeps the BPA’s debut album more in the theory-not-practice side of respectability.