The tenth of ten favorite 2011 albums — VNV Nation, ‘Automatic’

VNV Nation, Automatic

Because it made me cry.

First off, here’s the thing — the only order I’ve been sorting this list into was alphabetical. This list is also my Pazz and Jop ballot and the separate introductory post before I started it will serve as the comments I submitted for it so there ya go on that front, and all ten albums each received 10 points because even if I have a list I’m not interested in assigning those kinds of values to it anymore. (Trust me, I only do that on the AMG and Pitchfork and other similar pieces simply because it’s required.) So VNV Nation being at the end of the list isn’t some sort of sign that it’s therefore the least.

However, strictly speaking this list isn’t alphabetical in that V is before W, and When Saints Go Machine was yesterday. I switched it up a bit because I really did want my final entry and final words on the year in albums from my own whatever-it-might-be perspective to be about this one. It wasn’t like I was taken by surprise by Automatic because I had been very, very patiently waiting for it and knowing it was en route. But did I expect it to hit me as hard as it did? Thank heavens for pleasant surprises.

Perhaps, in some strange way, Automatic actually sums up my year because how parallels can be drawn between it and some of the other albums on my list. Vague perhaps, but I’m thinking about how Ronan Harris has been at this as long as the Mountain Goats and PJ Harvey and Radiohead have, how electronics is the core as it is for Planningtorock and When Saints Go Machine and Active Child, how even though there’s no guitars on the album it rocks as ridiculously well as the Joy Formidable does, how it focuses on the personal and questions of the self as much as Me of a Kind does.

And Lady Gaga? I said this earlier on a private board this year: “It just struck me that the nearest equivalent to Automatic might be Born This Way — trance used and transformed to particular purposes, building off of opposition (societal, personal, whatever) to celebrate surviving and winning, an open acknowledgement of darker impulses, a desire to reach out and beyond into some place in the future that’s better. It’s not that VNV and Gaga are the only ones doing that or that they’re really connected, but there’s a resonance in each that works beautifully, and has really done so for me this year.”

The power of VNV Nation and Harris is something I’ve talked about before here and there so like a number of my favorite albums this was a question of a pleasure of expectation as noted, something I was primed to be blown away by instead of being taken by surprise — the problem with that level of expectation is that one can almost be set in one’s ways. But I only came to VNV Nation a few years ago so this isn’t a long arc for me but a series of sudden shocks, now something of a culmination. Of Faith, Power and Glory was the first VNV Nation album I was waiting for instead of rapidly discovering in retrospect, but Automatic is another next level effort in that path. Like the Mountain Goats, like PJ Harvey, I get the feeling that the best work isn’t past, but present-and-what’s-to-come. Why rest on a laurel wreath when you don’t have to? Why should you?

Now in terms of face value it could be argued — easily — that what’s happening here on Automatic is more of an extension than anything else. Certainly it’s not radical reinvention. But I’ve thought and tried to say before, maybe unsuccessfully, that in VNV what I hear is something that parallels Harris’s use of trance for ulterior purposes — taking all the perceived darkness of the musical background he came from, that whole world of EBM that a whole clutch of us obsessing over groups like DAF and Front 242 and more all found ourselves in twenty plus years back, and turning it into sparkling, relentless light and energy. Inspiration that doesn’t feel like moralization and dullardry precisely because it grows out of something that, at its hoped-for best, distrusted that — in combination with massive baselines and beats.

I don’t argue for Harris — and of course Mark Jackson, his longtime band partner and percussionist — as being out to extend the possibilities of technological production and rhythmic innovation and so forth. And I’m not damning them with faint praise either; rather I’m simply saying the obvious, that that’s not all that needed to succeed, and I hope various earlier entries in this year’s list of mine have underscored that. Instead VNV makes things just fresh and different enough each time, finding something new, something different and distinct each time as the elements are recombined and worked. It could be in Harris’s singing, it could be in the use of melodic element, it could be as something simple as, yes, a bass wobble in “Control.” It’s not dubstep but it’s not meant to be, instead feeling like another instance of keeping your ears open to what can be done as befits one’s tastes.

And so I could go on about “Space and Time” and “Resolution” and “Gratitude” and their anthemic beauty, and I could talk about the melancholia of short instrumentals like “On-Air” and “Goodbye 20th Century,” and I could try and convey about how when the band finally gets to play an LA area show again in March that I’m very much looking forward to “Control” kicking my head in again, just as much as I am seeing if “Nova” is as heartrendingly moving live as it apparently is, according to friends of mine able to have caught them doing that during the recent tours. One thing’s for sure, Harris, with that somehow perfect rasp of his, knows just how to make some killer ballads.

Then there’s “Radio.” It wasn’t the first time I heard it but I was sitting here at my same home computer as I’m typing this now, a few months back, relistening to the album and building up once more to the album’s final song, and those first tones kicked in. I don’t know why it was that time in particular, but part way through it my girlfriend walked into the office and I looked up, a little startled, and we both realized I was tearing up. I did my best to explain why it was that way, thinking that somehow it was, appropriately enough, as if that same spirit of need for connection had transferred from Joy Division’s “Transmission” to this song, only now done as simple but lovely metaphor about communication, about community.

Something about it was pitched just, just right. If I needed confirmation I still am moved by new music, there it was.

Roll on next year.

Purchase Automatic from iTunes or Amazon.