Best Albums of 2016, #8: Sleigh Bells’ “Jessica Rabbit”

I’ve been following Sleigh Bells since they played at SXSW for the first time. I wasn’t there, of course, but I listened live on NPR so my cred is only slightly counterfeit. I played their debut album to death. I saw them open for the “last ever” LCD Soundsystem show at the Hollywood Bowl and was profoundly disappointed (they were not good). I’ve played each of their subsequent albums to death as well. I am a Sleigh Bells fan, simply put.

Their steady progression into strange pop music has made me so happy for reasons I can’t quite explain. They are so unlike anything I have ever listened to in my life. Yet sometimes they feel so familiar. The closing track on this album, “As If”, feels like a homage to my teenage years. It’s an atmospheric and occasionally brutal track that sounds to me like the end of the world, like the last thing we’ll hear before dark forces wipe us out will be that stuttering, somewhat robotic “as if”. There’s some Atari Teenage Riot in there, nestled up against Alexis Krauss’ belted-out pop vocal. Sleigh Bells sometimes sounds like the last 25 years of pop/rock music got the William Burroughs treatment: chopped, pasted, subverted and screwed.

I’m sure some, many, would disagree with me, but I feel like this is the most “Sleigh Bells” that a Sleigh Bells record has ever been. Anyone with ears can hear that the utmost care went into the production of this album. Every beat, guitar riff, and synth stab is layered in lucious reverb. The richly textured songs are often simply beautiful to listen to, the details never getting overwhelming or feeling overdone. It might not sound like their debut album most of the time, or at all, ever, but that’s fine. This is way weirder, and I like that.

My favorite song on the album, far and away, is “Baptism by Fire”. Like many Sleigh Bells songs, it’s hard to parse exactly what it might be about. It’s not quite Paul Simon style word soup, but it’s damn close. I have no idea what the first verse means, but it doesn’t matter because when she sings, “and if you die, I might be dead a long time,” and the synthesizer stabs start going off with the bass drums, it feels like my chest is being squeezed and it takes all my power not to start dancing. The chorus makes me want to organize a flash mob just so I have an excuse to choreograph a dance routine to it. It sounds like love, loud and in your face.

I feel similarly about “Crucible”, another bowl of word soup. My best guess is that it’s a song about dealing with the stress and anxiety of being a workaholic, how easy it is to turn to darkness, and the eventual climb out of that hole. What I just described almost perfectly matches the last three months of my life so I’m probably totally wrong and just hearing what I want to hear. The song does feature this lyric:

Know I cut my hair with a pocket knife when I’m on fire

No fucking idea what that means.

But it doesn’t matter because the song is basically one giant eargasm. Her vocal is just incredible, and the music itself just makes me want to get up and shake my ass. I don’t even have an ass. It just makes me want to lose my shit. I don’t understand how someone could listen to this music and not feel overjoyed by how confidently strangely weird and wonderful it is. It is dark but optimistic, aggressive but beautiful, and strange but familiar.

The album isn’t perfect. There’s songs I could do without. Sometimes the songwriting is incomprehensible. But all of its shortcomings are overshadowed by how much there is to love elsewhere on the album, like the way “Hyper Dark” starts off with a strange underwater interlude, with the “uh oh” sample fitting in so perfectly. How did they think of this? That’s one of my measures for true art: I’ll sit there simply amazed that someone had this idea, or that they stumbled across it and nurtured it until it became what I’m witnessing. Jessica Rabbit is magnificent, warts and all. I can’t wait to hear what comes next.

You can stream Jessica Rabbit on Apple Music and on Spotify. You can also stream Jessica Rabbit on YouTube, if that’s what you’re into.

Sleigh Bells is on tour in the U.S. in March of 2017, you should check them out if you can. I’ll be at the El Rey show in Los Angeles on March 28th, if you’re looking to assassinate me.