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No Age’s ‘An Object’ Proves Art-Damage Austerity Has Its Limits

No Age / Photo by Erik Voake
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: August 20, 2013
Label: Sub Pop

No Age always seemed like a punk band for people ambivalent about punk. Born of a Los Angeles community whose Venn diagram included skate shops, art galleries, and all-ages venues, their first five EPs (collected on 2007’s Weirdo Rippers) turned a style known for its Spartan directness into something fragmented and abstract. An early No Age song might start with a man shouting over the thud of tom-toms and end with layers of carefully sculpted noise fizzing across the mix like ocean spray — a sleight of hand that made punk’s inward aggression seem oblique, almost meditative.

Hopeful critics described the duo’s style as “ambient punk,” because they seemed as interested in sound as they did in songs. Their lyrics did not make conventional sense, at least not in the context of a tradition marked by questions like, “Parents / Why won’t they shut up?” Presentation didn’t hurt. Punk, a genre that still communicates through flyers, buttons, t-shirts, and other visual media, has always understood the ways good design can impact an audience. No Age’s “rainbow” logo — the words “NO AGE” with a ripple of red, yellow, blue, and green across the letters, like Neapolitan ice cream in primary colors — was printed on shirts before the band had even released a record, and became so recognizable that by 2010 a riff on it ended up in the New York Times Book Review.

If you were ever turned off by how confrontational punk could be — either in the bare physicality of the music or the politics of the message — here were two guys making punk as both a way to get teenagers to thrash and as a vehicle to experiment with form. In short, here were two guys making punk rock as artists.

Not that they elevated punk to the level of fine art, which is the kind of argument only a snob would make. In the eyes of No Age and their audience, most members of which probably would think the appropriation of the swimming pool by skateboarders in the 1970s was as creative and revolutionary as putting a urinal in a gallery, punk rock has always been as capable of sublimity as fine art. And artists — like so-called punks — share a commitment to the idea that there always will be newer and more radical ways of doing what could otherwise take on the stale air of habit.

Spend just more than an hour and a half, and you can catch up on almost everything No Age have ever recorded, and chart a process of gradual refinement: Noise becomes less an organizing principle, and more a way to give songs texture and color; songs (i.e., pieces of music you would recognize as songs) become more common, grounded by hooks and choruses that, in the spirit of fun, are given free range to coexist within the band’s high-minded experiments. By 2010’s Everything in Between, their style had become familiar: a West Coast answer to Hüsker Dü or Sonic Youth for a surf-skate generation who, admittedly or not, grew up on Green Day.

But any narrative about No Age’s evolution stops with their new album, An Object, which makes its austerity known before the music even starts: two words, article noun, no specifics necessary. Most of the music is fiercely restrained, characterized by short songs, skeletal atmospheres, and performances that have a mechanistic, flatlined intensity. Bad? No, but stiff, and sapped of the dynamism the twosome seemed to come by so naturally in the past.

Artists as thoughtful as No Age have never made music by accident, even when they didn’t know how to play their instruments So, maybe it’s goodwill that keeps me hoping that this is exactly what they intended. But what once felt like a talent for resisting the obvious has turned into what sounds like compulsion, resulting in songs that don’t use drums just because it might seem progressive to not use drums, or choruses as adolescent as “I WON’T BE YOUR GENERATOR / YOU’LL GET NO POWER FROM ME,” delivered in a monotone so unflinching that it reminds me of my deaf grandmother, Harriet.

A handful of songs escape intact — mostly the quieter, atmospheric ones. “An Impression” (featuring strings!) and “A Ceiling Dream of a Floor” are especially good, and maybe the closest the band have come to writing honest ballads. In the context of music this rigid, those two tracks have a naturalistic ebb and flow, turning raw blocks of sound into an actual narrative — which, in a way, is to say that No Age are truly making music. This is where Spunt’s voice, which has always had a flat, insistent quality, sounds best: Like a homesick kid stranded on an unfamiliar street, yearning for whatever reminds him of what he already knows.”

In a recent interview, Spunt said with some regret that he can now play drums for an hour and 20 minutes without wearing himself out. To recapture the spontaneity of Weirdo Rippers, he’d have to take up the accordion. Coming from a band who, until now, have always had a generous, positive, and open-ended attitude toward creativity, you have to ask: Why not?