Richard D. James At The End Of The 20th Century

ΔFex tΣi[N]’s “Σi[[NdσΣ1i cx∈r” t∈ r[N]s 2σ

Aphex Twin Windowlicker, Sire 1999

Because Richard David James approaches his studio craft the way the guy from π does math, it’s tempting to believe he’s created artificial life: What if those voices are completely computer-generated? “Windowlicker” opens with a slowed digitized moan somewhere between just-fully-sat-down-in-hot-tub and finally-able-to-take-that-shit before various erotic squeals join the industrial muster.

Then the voice-or-not reappears and it’s got erotic soprano friends. If you can’t cop to Aphex Twin being the greatest sound designer of the rock’n’roll era, at least admit that an individual on his level only occurs every one, maybe two decades: Eno, the Bomb Squad, Sophie, George Martin, Ornette Coleman, Skrillex, all in the conversation, sure.

But with James there’s one crucial difference. On no release, not as Aphex Twin or AFX or the Tuss or one of his countless other sock puppets, has James ever sounded tentative. The reason those rumors about him building his own synths and hardware like it’s nothing at age 12, living in a bank, tank, whatever — they only hold because he’s never revealed what it looks like when he doesn’t know what he’s doing. As far as listeners know, James always knows what he’s doing, that psychotically graph-plotted compositions come to him as naturally as any physical or programmed instrument did to Prince, who’s absolutely the comparison. James releases plenty of meaningless exercises of course (four hours of that Analord acid crap on 303s and 909s alone!), but they rarely sound like he’s figuring it out as he goes, even when his improvisatory side really has come through of late — SYRO would’ve done Coleman proud both as funk and a title. Few musicians have ever made off this much like the world (or the eardrum) is their pottery wheel, all to be molded in the service of that handsome myth, Discovering A New Color. So, right: the comparisons are Prince and the guy from π. Who is this dude?

Well, he’s a white man for sure, as “Windowlicker”’s iconic video attests by sucking its humor from things that 2019 takes less kindly to, like women with men’s faces and catcalling men of color. The extended, MTV-excised intro intends to comment on the tediousness of horny masculinity just as James’ grin grafted onto curvy women’s bodies is intended to mock sexual desire itself. Or in 1999 he just thought it would be an amusing Photoshop. There are visuals in it that age better than the mockery of the Other Genre’s rap videos: the beautiful choreography with Aphex logo umbrellas, the cheap champagne-as-cumshot joke, the H.R. Giger horror-reveal of the bucktoothed James caricature towards the end. There are worse ways James could’ve indulged his interest in his own face/fame than a memorable, problematic video at his peak. But surely you guessed that the music is why we’re celebrating an anniversary, not his attempt to one-up the now sadly departed Keith Flint.

Aphex Twin ’99

James’ other classics (Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II, Richard D. James Album) were more easily ID’d as some species of ambient or drum’n’bass, respectively, even if they instantly set new standards for both. “Windowlicker” is both easily his most identifiably “pop” song (a flip of the previous, thrashing “Come to Daddy” as his interpretation of “rock”) and something that doesn’t resemble any era of pop at all, even the the Reznor- and Timbaland-reigning one in which it was unleashed. Sure, it’s got timestretched, percolating synth tones recognizable to house fans and distorted Nine Inch Nails percussion, but in the service of…some kind of hummed and moaned, R&B sea shanty?

“Windowlicker” continues to impress because it has an unmistakable center, yet everything about it is completely amorphous. The floor of the rhythm keeps shifting beneath the body’s feet, shuffling on the “chorus” and…unshuffling on the “verses” if you want to call the things in between. You can tell it’s a product of 1999 because the song takes great pleasure in mining the swingin’ sounds of Napster for poor-mp3 resolutions, which are layered masterfully between the parts with state-of-the-art fidelity. Towards the end, frequencies appear that will either think you’re being subjected to a hearing test or having sleeper-agent codes downloaded to your brain. As for the catchy tune you won’t be able to extract from your skull, Googling “windowlicker lyrics” has you covered.

The excellent Windowlicker EP itself is rounded out with a song called (eat your heart out, Aronofsky), “Δmi−1 = −ασn=1ndi[N][Σjc{I}Fji[N − 1] + Fexti[[N−1]],” tactfully referred to by fans as “equation” (though I’d love to pick their brains about “Jynweythek Ylow”), and one of James’ prettiest-ever compositions, “Nannou,” a lullaby staged to sound like it was performed on a hacked music box. (The latter clearly foreshadowed what’s possibly James’ most well-known track, 2001’s sparkling, stately “Avril 14th,” which was sampled by Kanye West and uh, Andy Samberg with Adam Levine alike.) But it’s the title single that even a gnomic joker like James knew deserved crass marquee treatment, even if it was the most rubbernecking use of male breasts since Mechanical Animals if not Frank Costanza.

James has coded plenty of cheap jokes into his music before (see 1996’s “Milkman”), and there’s a great one here. So don’t remember the Windowlicker EP for the dated trans-baiting. Remember it for the nightmarish sneaky shit that the auteur smuggled inside “Δmi−1 = −ασn=1ndi[N][Σjc{I}Fji[N − 1] + Fexti[[N−1]],” a spectrogram of (what else?) his own meme-worthy creep visage. And, you know, the music.

 

Dan Weiss

Dan Weiss is a freelance music journalist based in Collingswood, New Jersey. He is the former (and last-ever) reviews editor at Spin magazine.

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