There’s nothing like a good story. The Arcade Fire’s Funeral was famously inspired by the deaths of those close to the band, and, more recently, Girl’s Album had its own tragic circumstances. In both cases, the music transcended the weight of their respective narratives to become something more unifying and universal. You didn’t need the story to believe in the band.
What if that story is invented, though? Machines That Listen, by the Delta Mirror, is an album in which each of the nine tracks is set in a different room of a (presumably fictional) hospital, but just how this plays out on record is not entirely obvious. The tone of each track is consistently moribund and uses similar instrumentation: a combination of piano, vocals, electronic beats and effects.
The album’s centrepiece and strongest track, “He Was Worse Than The Needle He Gave You,” opens with a a repeated guitar motif. Soon the guitar is joined by piano, and the line, “I’ve got too much time on my hands.” The rest of the track is a slow, hypnotic build, with the main additions being various electronic noises and glitchy beats. It’s effective, but depressing.
And that seems to be the central problem with Machines That Listen: It’s a record that’s weighed down by self-importance and the sheer relentlessness of the music. Take “Hold Me Down Just Don’t Let Me Go,” which again repeats the central album pattern of world-weary piano chords and tired, miserable vocal lines like “you can see your insides turning inside out again” and “I’m afraid to lose you,” all set to a lumbering, uninspired beat.
Perhaps I’m taking it all too seriously, but it’s hard not to. It’s difficult to combat the feeling that this is ultimately a record about relationships that’s being sold as an album about a hospital. Worse, the concept adds little to the overall sense of exhaustion of the music and the themes of death, depression, and break-ups, but yet more bleary-eyed self-pity.
More irritating is the lack of invention on display here. Why does a record about a hospital have to be so sad? If every song is set in a different room of a hospital, why use the same instrumentation and tone? Giving an album a theme shouldn’t be a carte blanche for repetition, but it feels like it sometimes is here. A theme should enrich music, not hold it back.
Machines That Listen ultimately reminds me of the much overlooked Life Is Full Of Possibilities by Dntel, but for all the wrong reasons. Where the latter created a blanketed, overwhelming ambience, the former often approaches an off-putting misery seemingly just for the sake of being sad. While both records are similarly indebted to electronica, one is so organic you can almost feel its pulse, and the other is tinny and underwhelming.
I’m not arguing that this is a bad record, nor that it isn’t worth any of your time. Some of the aspects that are fairly off-putting for me on Machines That Listen will definitely attract a certain audience. However, it’s hard for me not to imagine that audience as being composed primarily of teenagers in bedrooms feeling very sorry for themselves about very little.