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Record Review: Art Brut’s Brilliant! Tragic!

By / Posted on 23 May 2011

Brilliant! Tragic!At what point do outsider artists stop being outsiders? This is the question asked (perhaps inadvertently) of listeners to Art Brut’s fourth album, Brilliant! Tragic! The European nouveau-rock quintet has succeeded far greater than anybody could have expected from their humble and almost gimmicky beginnings. Surf rock guitars and tone deaf speak-singing seemed like a recipe for disaster in a market made comfortable with The Decemberists and Arcade Fire, but Art Brut proved to be more than a joke thanks to musical and lyrical honesty that bordered on shockingly personal and a never-ending sense of fun-fun-fun. The most surprising thing Art Brut could do was tone it down.

Brilliant! Tragic! shows a new side of Art Brut. Slower and more distant, looser and choppier, more pensive and self-effacing (if such a thing were even possible). This is due in large part to producer Frank Black (aka Black Francis, frontman of Pixies), returning to the position he held on Art Brut’s previous venture, Art Brut vs. Satan. While the previous collaboration sounded like the same old Art Brut, just with higher production values and greater confidence in their sound, Black’s influence is much more prevalent here. The instrumentation is less like a high-energy group of aging misfits and more like every band influenced by Pixies. Eddie Argos sings, in a manner not unlike Black, and formerly-mute bassist Freddy Feedback even sings backup in a pretty decent Kim Deal impression.

There are times when Brilliant! Tragic! sounds like Frank Black’s version of Art Brut’s debut, Bang Bang Rock and Roll. “Clever, Clever Jazz” is the self-aware and insecure little brother of breakout hit “Formed A Band,” “Lost Weekend” is an angsty and uncomfortable companion to “Good Weekend” (“got myself a brand new girlfriend!”) and “Bad Weekend” (“popular culture no longer applies to me”), and “Martin Kemp Welch Five A-Side Football Rules” is the frustrated emotional breakdown that follows rejection by “Emily Kane.” It’s as though the band played a song, Black came in and said “that’s good, but I would do it like this” and the band were so enamored that they just did it his way without question. The result is an album that sounds less like Art Brut’s fourth album and more like Pixies’ seventh album, as performed by Art Brut. The post-mortem “Ice Hockey” resembles any number of Frank Black’s post-Bossanova work and, along with “Is Dog Eared” and “Axel Rose,” sounds more like a tightly-produced jam session at the bar than a traditional rock song.

None of this is bad, it’s just disappointing. “Sexy Sometimes” and “Clever, Clever Jazz” remain strong tracks that instantly tether Eddie’s insecurities to the listeners’, and despite being as one-note as any song in the band’s catalog, “Axel Rose” is guaranteed to be a favorite of live shows for years to come due to its iron embrace of youthful rebellion and flipping off anybody who stands in your way. That said, Brilliant! Tragic! is the band’s least engaging work to date, with a few tracks bordering on being annoying.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.