by M.G. Mailloux Kicking the Canon Music

Big Black | Songs About Fucking

August 6, 2020
Credit: Touch and Go

Steve Albini boasts a legacy that is at once massive and, at the same time, pretty fucking stupid. The albums he worked on as a sound engineer comprise a significant portion of what’s considered the alt/indie rock “canon” (or whatever you would like to call it), and then, of course, there are the musical projects on which he served as both vocalist and guitarist, of which Big Black still looms largest. The group was conceived by Albini while he was at Northwestern University studying journalism; in his free time, he was writing an informal, performatively profane type of music criticism not too dissimilar from what would be popularized by music blogs and YouTube decades later. Big Black would be heavily informed by this context, a band conceived in response to the perceived failings of the punk community that Albini wrote about, with an eye towards building reputation and notoriety. Their sound was built around two primary conceits: the first being the then uncool decision to use a Roland TR-606 drum machine in lieu of a human drummer; the second being that Albini would write his songs as a character. Technically speaking, Albini writes as many characters, but they all stem from one generalized voice and persona that he has donned for every project he has masterminded: an embodiment of violent masculinity. The band’s second LP, Songs About Fucking, was designed to be the ultimate encapsulation of these ideas, the most complete and final statement that the band would make. Coming in at just over 30 minutes, Songs About Fucking is a fleet anthology of calamitous, screeching hardcore ballads that are, yes, largely about fucking — but also about violence, misogyny, and the ways in which the three convene. This is all placed parallel to an aesthetic conceit — the TR-606, programmed to produce a relentless, mechanically precise rhythm around which Albini and his co-conspirators (Santiago Durango and Jeff Pezzati on guitar and bass respectively) wrap noisy, barbed melodies. 

With this musical format, Albini has a perfect complement to his thematic interests, and so, in many ways, Songs About Fucking is a really excellent and thorough album. But it is in Albini’s approach to songwriting — and, more broadly speaking, the way in which he approached his role as the band’s frontman  — where the album’s legacy becomes dubious. For all of the band’s forward-thinking approach to conceptualizing a sonic aesthetic, Albini’s obsession with rubbing his audience’s face in preposterous acts of violence (“Columbian Necktie”) and misogynist rhetoric can’t help but track as cringey Gen-X juvenalia in the year 2020, in the vicinity of something like the Faces of Death VHS series. Albini opts to “get in character,” his gambit acting as a series of proto-incel sociopath boys across the entire project. When it was first released, criticism was leveled against Albini and Big Black from a position assuming that Songs About Fucking was a straight-faced affair. While it now seems inarguable that these songs are archly pitched, it’s also hard to see a lot of difference between Steve Albini and “Steve Albini.”  This sort of smirking, intellectual faux-distance is a pretty boring refuge that tarnishes a decent amount of the work produced from this particular era. There’s no valuable insight to be read into the misogynist violence here — it’s largely just another aesthetic (just as Albini used racism as an aesthetic in his early project Run N**** Run). It’s a shame that Songs About Fucking is burdened by its creator’s dumber impulses, as it also bears some of his finest musical designs. Steve Albini is the worst sort of cliched music nerd; it’s a frustrating and taxing bargain one must accept if they want to engage his work.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.

You Might Also Like

In Review | Online film and music criticism