The "album as a distinct entity" philosophy instigated by the Beatles and Dylan has guided Todd pretty much from the start, but his allegiance to that approach has been eroding steadily since "No World Order", and I suppose it comes as no surprise to find "One Long Year" so disjointed, a disparate collection of songs, which exhibit little or no connection to one another. But what IS surprising is the lack of professionalism marring several of the cuts. Todd's reliance on drum machinery and sequencing is obviously not without precedent (the notoriously half-assed "Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect" and the overlong and injuriously programmed "Individualist" spring to mind), but some of the songs on the new record barely surpass the "demo-quality" mark. While the songwriting is sharp and appealingly diverse, the "drumming" and "Hill Street Blues" keyboards on "I Hate My Frickin' ISP", "Buffalo Grass", and "Hit Me Like a Train" sound frankly cheap and, in the tradition of "Up Against It!", these renditions keep me wondering what the final product will sound like... Only, of course, this IS the final product. I guess now that Todd no longer considers himself part of the "industry", there is little impetus to bring things up to "industry standard", but the "cyber-punk cult hero" standard that he settles for on these songs is undeniably a let-down.
Technology is put to much more convincing use on "Jerk" and "Mary and the Holy Ghost". The former is a promising stab at industrial music that is ultimately undone by repetition and underdevelopment: there's a charming, 3 minute Nine Inch Nails pastiche hiding somewhere inside the song, I'm sure, but at 4 and a half minutes, it's too much of a good... well, PRETTY good thing. The latter is an instrumental drum n' bass excursion, with subtle, effective samples. "Yer Fast (And I Like it)" stands as an unqualified success: it's a convincing slab of blues-punk, one of the few remaining styles heretofore unexplored in Todd's catalogue (the vocals bring to mind early Cheap Trick, a decidedly good thing). And if the drums ARE programmed on this one, they sound real enough not to be distracting. These songs prove what Todd has demonstrated throughout his career: that there is a time and a place to use a machine... The computer CAN be your friend. But there is also a time to rely on real, flesh and blood musicians. (Come on, Todd... if XTC can afford Prairie Prince to drum on their records, so can you!) While that was ostensibly the lesson of "Nearly Human", the past few albums, and this record, especially, give the impression that Todd is either unaware of, or just plainly indifferent to, the distinction.
Furthermore, whatever impact the newer tunes might have had, it is dulled by their proximity to songs which amount to nothing more than a haphazard popourri of rarities and outtakes. There's a bossa nova "Love of the Common Man", which for some strange reason didn't belong on "With a Twist" and yet, somehow, DOES belong here. (Right, Todd.) "Where Does the Time Go?" is likable enough, but it does date from the mid-eighties, and apart from an added harmony vocal in the first verse and maybe a re-mix, sounds unchanged from the version that exists on "Somewhere/Anywhere?". Most distressingly, we have "Bang on the Ukelele Daily", which is nothing more than "Bang on the Drum" performed live on a ukelele-- it's certainly cute the first or second time around and a lot of fun live, but context is everything: Onstage is where the song belongs.
And the lack of context is largely this album's undoing for me. The songwriting is still strong... not as multi-dimensional as it once was, perhaps, but the simple appeal of most tunes indicates that, with a little more continuity in the sound, and more thoughtful overall presentation, this could have been a good record. The content is there-- fair enough for someone who once trumpeted, "It's the content, stupid!". But next time out, perhaps someone ought to suggest, "It's the context, as well". It was Todd's ability to coordinate diverse song ideas and arrangements in a coherent fashion that made him such a wonderful, in-demand producer. And it is precisely that skill which is most distressingly absent on "One Long Year".