Surreal is a word used often and loosely. We throw the word at anything that slightly unsettles us, whether it’s current affairs, a bus ride home on an empty top deck, or a late night trip to the supermarket. You have to wonder what the likes of Breton, Dali or Bataille – in the midst of their considerations of Mad Love, melting time, and, er, sex play involving eggs and eyes – would make of our flippant use of the word in 2019.
More to the point, we tend to do a disservice to the phenomenon of the leftfield when we dismiss an intriguing oddity as simply surreal. We put it in the weird pile, so to speak, and expect that to do all the explicating. So when it comes to Methyl Ethel‘s third full length, Triage, an album that seems to complete a cycle of technicolour expansion begun with their debut Oh Inhuman
Here more so than ever before, Jake Webb seems to have gone out of his way to tell a story the wider world might recognise. What began on Oh Inhuman Spectacle as flickers of a grand musical vision amid a world of tense introversion here explodes into a vast glam rock exposition. Opener ‘Ruiner’ set the expansive tone for the album, but it also tells of self-deprecation and uncompromising self-assessment that perhaps paints a clearer picture of the musical creator than anything Webb has yet produced. ‘Trip The Mains’ alludes to the intensity of lost connections. ‘Real Tight’ seems to worry over the reliability of lived experiences.
There’s a sense that the whole Methyl Ethel project thus far has been an effort to get what’s happening inside Webb’s head out for the world to see in a way that can be engaged with. Album by album, the music’s become increasingly uninhibited, the lyricism less cryptic. “Something to be said / Something in my head,” Webb croons on ‘All The Elements’, and that doesn’t seem to apply just to the track, or the album, but to the project as a whole.
Even when the compositions become sonically more Spartan, on ‘Trip The Mains’ for example, there still seems to be something fundamentally uninhibited about Webb’s work on Triage.
So, it feels not just lazy but misrepresentative to describe this collection of pop chops as surreal. Instead, it’s rather a hyperreal and somewhat unnerving exposition of Jake Webb’s worldview in 2019. A world view that he’s been getting gradually more articulate at expressing over the course of the project, packaged here in the dark grandeur of the soaring vocals of ‘Post-Blue’s chorus, the stratified backing voices on ‘Scream Whole’, the towering menace of ‘Ruiner’.
What Webb has developed over the course of the last three Methyl Ethel records is more fine-grained than surreality. It’s pop-culture subversion that on Triage becomes claustrophobic in its expansive ambition. It presses upon you as it opens outwards, and it leaves a mark. This doesn’t seem so much an attempt at accessing the potentialities of an unconscious mind as it is an effort to articulate the reactions of a deeply conscious mind with great creative instinct and precision.TRIAGE BY METHYL ETHEL IS OUT FEBRUARY 15 ON 4AD: ORDER HERE