Stream Art Brut’s Brilliant! Tragic! in its entirety here
Eddie Argos has no illusions that he’s Barry White or Marvin Gaye—or even your average American Idol winner—but that only makes “Sexy,” from Art Brut’s fourth album Brilliant! Tragic! all the more unlikely. “I want to be played in the background, while couples drink their wine,” Argos sings—yes, sings. “That would be a triumph with a voice like mine.” Previously, that “voice like mine” has been a force of will, more like an overenthusiastic comic-book nerd playing rock star than an actual rock star, but it’s been instrumental in putting across Art Brut’s cheekily self-aware songs, which skewer themselves as rock upstarts as well as indie bands too scene-serious to skewer themselves.
Under the tutelage of producer Black Francis, Argos attempts what he calls “singing” on these songs, but what others might call “whispering hoarsely.” It’s an unusual development, one that works about half the time—maybe less. “Is Dog Eared” sounds like a put-on, with an air of false conspiracy and a band that sounds a bit too uneasy about overwhelming their leader.
But on “Lost Weekend,” which inflates some drunken rabble-rousing to epic proportions, Argos’ low, raspy vocals sound like the result of the event itself, as if he’s suffering a particularly grievous hangover. It’s an endearing song—definitely one for the greatest hits—and it certainly captures so much of what makes Art Brut so brutishly (Britishly?) artsy. Argos recognizes that the scenario in “Lost Weekend”—two clubgoers too drunk and horny to realize they’re dancing in chip shops instead of dancehalls—is both heroic and a little pathetic—brilliant and tragic, with exclamation points.
That volatile combination of humor and heartbreak has energized the band’s previous albums and even redeemed moments when their bar-rock grooves didn’t click or when Argos’ untrained singspeak annoyed. But after four albums in six years, Art Brut is in serious danger of repeating itself. Songs like the ungainly “I Am the Psychic” and the shrill “Clever Clever Jazz” sound threadbare or, worse, mean-spirited, while others are shadows of better songs on better albums.
In that regard, Argos’ delivery on Brilliant! Tragic! is a necessary and not unwelcome change, a way to keep the songs compelling and unpredictable. But it’s both too much and not enough: too grating at times, too familiar at others. Moving forward, Art Brut will either need to figure out ways to stretch themselves with more confidence and ability, or they’ll need to write better songs. This album, however, makes them sound like characters in an Art Brut song—but not in a good way.