If you came up to me two years ago and told me one of the best contemporary release of 2013 would be Thundercat’s follow-up to The Golden Age of Apocalypse, I would have scoffed (maybe even laugh at you) as I looked at my Janelle Monae and Weeknd posters and wondered what they would cook up next. I guess that’s why my career as a fortune teller never took off.
Apocalypse is better than The Golden Age of Apocalypse in several ways. Firstly, Thundercat finally realizes here that when it’s his name on the package instead of his name on a list of session musicians, the music requires a lot more than just an intimate understanding of the instruments involved; it requires songwriting too – something that marred his debut in my eyes. Furthermore, before he made The Golden Age of Apocalyse, he knew that most people only recognized his name because of his work with Flying Lotus on 2010’sCosmogramma, so when it came time to work on his debut, he relied on Flying Lotus as little as possible so as to distance himself as his own entity. It was a bold move, but a miscalculated one nonetheless. This time, he forgoes any notions of trying to prove himself and has Flying Lotus co-producing the entire thing. In other words, they’re capitalizing on their friends-with-benefits-like relationship; Flying Lotus relies on Thundercat’s bass playing to ground his astral visions while Flying Lotus transfers Thundercat’s otherwise contemporary R&B templates through a Brainfeeder filter. Lastly, despite being an album released in and made for the summer (in a more perfect world, “Oh Sheit It’s X” would be blasted on dancefloors), it’s an album reminded of mortality after being inspired by the death of labelmate and close friend, Austin Peralta, who passed away in November, 2012.
Though, to be sure, to call Apocalypse a contemporary R&B album would be to do it a disservice. Like his mentor Flying Lotus, Thundercat shares a fidgety fetish (why not continue the sex metaphor) in that their music can’t be pigeonholed into a single genre (I suppose “postmodern” would be the most apt descriptor here, but the day I use “postmodern” unironically is the day I realize “post-post-postmodern” has become a legit thing and I better just go along with everyone to stay relevant). “The Life Aquatic,” for example, would’ve fit right at home on Flying Lotus’ Until the Quiet Comes (think: “Until the Colours Come”); a track for window-gazing while it’s pouring rain on a Sunday evening. But most impressively, at many points on the album, I’m reminded of progressive rock of all things. “Seven” in particular, sounds like it could’ve been an interlude by bassist Chris Squire on Yes’s Fragile, just transposed half-a-century later – Thundercat’s few vocals at the end of the track even sound eerily similar to those of Jon Anderson. Elsewhere, “Lotus and the Jondy” starts off like most other tracks here, before Thomas Pridge (of the Mars Volta) steps in with a very long drum solo and effectively hijacks the rest of the track. Then, easy album highlight and multipartite closer, “A Message for Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void,” starts somewhere on Earth with a slowly uplifting melody harmonizing with strings, but when the dreamy metronomic percussion and feyer antics of either artist comes in the song’s latter half, it ends somewhere in the Heavens – and if that’s not progressive, than I don’t know what is.
It’s not perfect, though. Thundercat’s voice is much too airy for its own good sometimes, and because his bass decides to throb instead of move around on opener “Tenfold,” it exists only for its climax from the guitar solo. Meanwhile, “Tron Song” is devoted to the family cat as requested by Thundercat’s daughter, but because it never explicitly says so, it plays as a song full of empty clichés (though the brief vocal bridge at the 1:17 mark is great stuff). Interlude “We Die” is fine except is recycles the meta trick done so much better on “Oh Sheit It’s X.” But there are standouts that rank at the top of both Thundercat’s and Flying Lotus’ careers. “Heartbreaks + Setbacks,” as previously mentioned, features up and down lyrics and a melody that follows suit, over guitar flicks that mimic overhead lights on the dancefloor. Thundercat is obviously more comfortable when singing in falsetto, but centerpiece “Oh Sheit It’s X” has him using his full range, constantly jumping from one voice to the next. Such a move allows him to pull us into the scene with him as he searches for the bathroom, rejects his friends who want to go to the nearest burger (if you’re American) / poutine (if you’re Canadian) joint and hits on a woman with one of the worst lines I’ve ever heard (“Your purse is nice, baby, is it leather / Or could it be suede?”
But best of all, as mentioned, Apocalypse resonates on an emotional level because it understands life’s many contradictions. He’s hallucinating goblins on “Lotus and the Jondy,” but he notes that there’s “no need to be frightened” right after; on “Heartbreaks + Setbacks,” he follows the title’s words with “Breakups + Makeups,” and ends with a climbing motif, “Love, love, love, love!”; an interlude titled “We’ll Die” features the grim epiphany that “You’ll die / We’ll die / Nothing lasts forever” but ends with the hopeful, “Try to do your best.” Most obviously, there’s that key moment in the middle of “Oh Sheit It’s X,” where there’s a loud burp followed by the realization that “Oh shit, I’m fucked up” while the beat completely stops (apparently, Flying Lotus fought hard to keep that line on the album despite Thundercat’s best efforts). It’s his constant straddling of emotions that, in the words of Drowned in Sound’s Philip Bloomfield, Thundercat conveys all “the milestones of these lost years: the parties don’t feel the same, the drugs don’t work, things were better as they were before, it’s not you it’s me, the never more apparent futility of the daily grind.”