You wait five years and then you flinch. Just the thrill, just at the right time.
A thing about Janine Rostron, aka Planningtorock, is that even just reading an interview with her is a kind of thrill. Consider this one, or this one. It’s always gratifying to find someone able to engage in discussion of their work where you get a sense that they’re driving the conversation as much as the interviewer, and are able to elaborate further on their art that gives the feeling of a personal, very smart study of what’s going on. Not every artist need be so lucky in that regard, but the ones who are are often some of the most involving when it comes to what they do.
Which might sound like a strange thing to judge an album by, after all — what matters what its creator or creators say when it comes down to what they do? But I’d seen these interviews after I’d heard the newest album and if anything they extended the pleasurable shock of W itself, a sense that there was something fierce and focused behind it all, extremely self-possessed while at the same time desiring to find what connection can mean in an uneasy, fragmented and predominantly electronic state of society and self. The gift of W is that this kind of turn of thought emerges so naturally out of so many excellent songs and performances, something of its moment and defiantly, almost bloody-mindedly apart from it.
Not that Planningtorock came out of nowhere; Rostron’s elaborate debut Have It All meant that it seemed like her second release would be more in the vein of extreme art/pop/metal/opera/whathaveyou — the album’s title alone suggests the sense of claiming whatever is desired, up to and including everything. But her collaboration with the Knife reshaped perceptions a touch and with the release of W and its associated artwork and imagery. Rostron’s decidedly non-human prosthetic, vocals in all pitches and ranges now unfolding over arrangements that felt starkly hollowed out, low woodwinds and strings on “Going Wrong,” or, when lusher, as with the building swirl of a melody on the instrumental “Black Thumber,” seemed to be poised on the edge of sliding into a deep depth, like there was nowhere to go in the end but down, as that latter song’s conclusion inevitably suggests.
Planningtorock is, for what its worth, the last of the albums on this list made by female artists or lead figures, a fact only worth noting in its, I hope, increasing non-remarkability. That there’s been much more variety and willingness to explore various conceptions of sound and sonic approach — not to mention lyrical — via a vast number of female performers in all fields is precisely what grants a performer like Planningtorock even more status in my eyes because so much of W is an extension of an exploration beyond both gender and, arguably, humanity. A bit of a reach, perhaps, but if the term posthuman is the type of thing that lends itself too readily to long-unread theses in the humanities, it’s still affecting. In a world where 2NE1’s hyperpop suggests the human animal can thrive happily, Planningtorock is the ghost of cyberpunk past and 21st century dystopic futures reincorporated, hoping to not simply be reanimation of the flesh but feeling like little else.
“You know I am your man” begins one song, a trill in her voice sounding like the ghost of Marc Bolan as much as anything else, a quick pitter patter of beats and almost mocking “wah wah wah” backing vocals rubbing up against a squirrelly keyboard burst that stops and starts in equal measure. It’s not 2011 as such, it feels extracted from various pasts and then reassembled for the future and then broken down again. You could even call it classic soul in its lyrics and delivery, or maybe the kind of robot soul that Annie Lennox was supposed to have achieved for a couple of seconds before becoming fully freeze-dried, where here it’s all supposed to sound distressed and questioning, not something that trips easily out of the speakers or smoothly in any context. When she appears to sing to or about herself on “Janine,” it’s almost as if the creation of Planningtorock is trying to reach out to its creator in desperate hope, a brief stab before the album’s end at returning to where whatever it all was began in the first place.
Smooth moments do nonetheless occur, at least implicitly. If the pulse of “Living It Out” is Moroder-backing-Summer, it’s to back an aerobic exercise of nervousness, almost as if the future is trying to be reinforced through hopeful repetition instead of comfort. W is not comfort listening, though — it’s listening that acknowledges the basics of pop form in a certain sense, ignores it in another, prefers the apparent cul-de-sac instead of open dialogue with the moment, observes from a distance that’s not as far as might be imagined. The clatter of “Jam” is something equally conversant with percussion-led destabilization of past models on the mainstream pop front and the kind of happily insular worlds that someone like PJ Harvey, to note the previous entry in this list, is well familiar with.
The most bravura moment comes with “The Breaks,” the album’s second single and the closest to a formal anthem that W has, something where Rostron’s sense of commanding presence feels like a formal pronouncement, even while invoking collapse and confusion. When she sings “We break too easily,” she stretches out ‘break’ for just long enough, a descending sob that’s not a formal cry or weeping,… When she shifts to a calmer voice on — appropriately — the break, a new backing tone swells up, an ominous darkening, the feeling that there’s no escape and that there’s maybe still a human at the heart of it all, maybe even a woman rather than just a human. The fact that there’s an allowing for misinterpreting or unsureness helps drive the album as a whole, there’s strange rough edges and gleaming moments in the rigor. Rostron is still, after all, an actual person in this world, not a construct, but doesn’t the construct matter most in how it’s encountered by the listener? Then why worry, when the suggestion of what it might be in imagination can be so much more powerful.