Jonathan Levi is a man of multiple personas. Some might recognize him as the live (and occasional studio) bassist for Ladytron, while others might recall his days in instrumental weirdos Super Numeri. Yet his solo work under the name Pop Levi could not be further removed from Ladytron’s austere electro, or from most strains of music as it has traditionally been classified over the decades, for that matter. In Levi’s solo manifestation, he is the extrapolated Mark Bolan continuing to bang the gong instead of meeting a tragic end. He’s a glammed out superstar, a chart topper in an alternate universe where Queen-style levels of hugeness and sonic excess have the utmost attention of the public. Medicine is Levi’s third official album since 2007, and it marks the point where he finally slams down on the Wile E. Coyote detonator that blows his persona and sound into a cartoonishly huge and throat-grabbing form. It might just be one of the most breathlessly fun listens of 2012.
That opener “Strawberry Shake” starts with Levi howling like a wolf before a fuzzed out surf guitar riff is introduced is just the first indication that the album that follows will be slightly ridiculous. The track does not disappoint, assaulting the listener with Levi’s reedy, high-pitched vocals, chaotic drum breaks, Auto-Tuned choruses, and lightly distorted background calls to “shake it, shake it.” The next track, “Motorcycle 666” features an where the titular number of the beast is chanted while a guitar solo shreds itself to pieces. Things like this are presented as if they are just the normal thing to do, with no safety net of ironic detachment to fall back on. Medicine‘s fearlessness is to be commended.
The sheer number of things going on in each song, paired with the constantly in-the-red maximalist style of production Levi favors, could be interpreted as a way of obscuring weak songwriting. This is a theory quickly disproved by the title track’s scuzz guitar earworm, the classicist-baiting ballad “Bye-Byes,” the vocal pyrotechnics of “Rock Solid,” the Attractions-fronted-by-George-Michael sprint of “Remember, Remember,” or the way the fey, piano-led verses of “Coming Down” explode into a chorus of titanic proportions. Levi’s time with Ladytron and association with Ninja Tune have apparently had a big effect on his production, as everything here is arena-sized, with low end massive enough to compare to just about any more traditionally electronic-minded dance floor banger.
The problem with Medicine, ultimately, is that once statement of purpose “Records” drops about three-fourths of the way through the album, the whole thing gets a little exhausting, like being forced to make multiple trips to a buffet stocked with nothing but cake and ice cream by a gang of miscreants threateningly swinging chains made of candy necklaces. Much has been made in recent years about the recycling of past cultural tropes, but where Medicine stands out is in how it seems to propose the existence of an alternate future, where kids never fell out of love with 70’s glam but still use the instruments of their day. It’s speculative fiction in album form, gleefully out of step with most sounds of today, demanding attention, but more importantly, keeping it.