Over the course of an illustrious career that has spanned nearly three decades, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner has continuously shown himself to be an avid fan of music history, with a deep appreciation of various genres. Whether it was the wry indie rock of early albums like Thriller, the sardonic alt country of landmarks like Nixon, or the restrained gospel and soul influences of 2012’s Mr. M, Wagner has always been one to weave together disparate styles. Even so, it is jarring to witness the significant leap he’s taken on FLOTUS (an acronym of For Love Often Turns Us Still), Lambchop’s latest album that pivots sharply to Auto-Tuned, beat-driven electronica. Influenced by the 57-year-old Wagner’s newfound embrace of hip-hop, Lambchop’s 12th studio album may be his biggest leap in decades.
While Wagner’s experimental inclinations can be traced all the way back to selections from his early catalog such as 1994’s noisy single “Two Kittens Don’t Make a Puppy”, much of the blueprint for his unorthodox approach comes from HeCTA, a band he formed last year with Lambchop members Ryan Norris and Scott Martin. Their 2015 debut, The Diet, serves as a precursor to FLOTUS’ subdued house, an homage to the American underground dance music of the ’70s. Lambchop’s once sprawling lineup has been pared back to five members, including Norris and Martin, making FLOTUS somewhat a continuation of the boundary-pushing they dabbled in with their side project.
Over the course of FLOTUS’ 68 minutes, Lambchop alternate between downtempo, Krautrock, folk, and synthpop without losing their distinct identity. Wagner explained in an interview with Stereogum that he was drawn to explore modern hip-hop after years of hearing his neighbors playing mixtapes from their house, always one step ahead of current radio trends. Wagner started listening to artists like Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Shabazz Palaces, excited by the cutting edge production and a musical world he hadn’t paid much attention to. A key aspect was the idea of vocal distortion, the artists using Auto-Tune as an artistic tool that could extract profound depth out of unnatural sounds. Wagner used a voice processor to write and record the melodies for FLOTUS, and nearly three quarters of the record finds his voice obscured, often treating his metallic yelps and coos as another instrument rather than the sole focus.
Wagner recedes from the forefront of much of FLOTUS, instead mixing blips and glitches together to create a synchronized harmony of plaintive electronics. He mumbles throughout, and a phrase may trail off into a muttered crooning that would make Justin Vernon proud. In turn, his lyrics have grown more poetic and quixotic from the relative minimalism he explored on Mr. M. Always one to find the beauty in the mundane and routine, Wagner may paint an image of picking up trash in his backyard on “Harbor County,” or repeatedly circle back to visions of a laundry room on “JFK”. On standout “Directions to the Can”, co-written with Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Wagner speaks in fragments, disjointed but brought back to a recurring motif of him imploring the subject to “take it on the chin.” While the rambling lyrics are challenging to parse at times, they always come back to a recurring motif of being awed by love as a force, and appreciating the day-to-day routine that it takes to make a long relationship last.
Wagner has taken what could easily have been an experimental curiosity and turned it into a surprising power. While some of the album’s meandering midsection may blur, it’s bookended by long, complex pieces that realize the idea’s full potential. Opener “In Care of 8675309” is a reverential odyssey where Wagner fills all of its 12 minutes with sprawling verses that reach from his early past (one line name-drops Posterchild, the name of an early incarnation of Lambchop from the late-‘80s) to taking stock in his present. A breathless masterpiece that muses on all aspects of life from religion to government, it’s a comprehensive reflection. The album ends with “The Hustle”, an 18-minute, hypnotic, mostly instrumental electronic track that is punctured by Wagner’s recollection of the joy of watching guests at a wedding he attended dancing the famous routine as if it was a secret language. With those two pieces alone, FLOTUS would be a remarkable work.
While FLOTUS may be Wagner’s calmest collection of music to date, his foray into a new genre is far from a safe bet. Full of meditative wisdom that he adds to his genre-blurring work, FLOTUS contains a restless energy that frequently surprises. By pushing far outside of his comfort zone, he has imbued his sound with a fresh life that adds another compelling chapter to the chronicle of his rich career.
Essential Tracks: “Directions to the Can”, “In Care of 8675309”