The Art of Noise, The Seduction of Claude Debussy

I was a starving med student in a tiny studio apartment living off financial aid and contract work when this album came out in 1999, but I was too big of an AoN fan to miss their first release in literally a decade, and I scraped together my pennies to get in line for the deluxe 3-disc pre-order complete with (and this was quite a novel idea back then) a custom burned-to-order CD-R with unreleased tracks. By now the group had metastasized to Lol Creme (10cc) as well as Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley and Paul Morley, "playing themselves" in the liner notes, and incredibly a full narration by no less than actor John Hurt. A concept album for the 1990s, the album attempted to merge Debussy compositions (and I do like Debussy) with AoN's usual inscrutable synthopop hijinx, but the end product comes off overproduced and overwrought, and like all concepts that try to do too much the album ends up offering far too little. The quality isn't at issue: with Trevor Horn in the producer's chair, the album couldn't help but ooze quality to spare. But production quality isn't everything, and the feel of the album suggests that they treated commercial success as a given (Ron Howard as NARRATOR: It wasn't.) and concluded they could do as they pleased. The hoity-toity narration, competently delivered as it is, is part of that problem, but so are the unrelated aria interludes (e.g., "On Being Blue" and "Born on a Sunday"), the irritating rap on top of an otherwise solid technogroove ("Metaforce," complete with KLF-style AoN callouts), and, well, tracks that are just plain irritating (the fatally repetitive "Metaphor on the Floor"). Do I think I wasted this fragment of my student loans I'm still paying back? Well, not so much, because there are still some remarkable moments like the lead-in "Il Pleure (At the Turn of the Century)" and "The Holy Egoism of Genius," plus the ambient audio seafoam of "Out of this World (Version 138)." These are legitimately good, though only one track truly feels the most like classic AoN and the most like it achieves the album's premise, that being "Rapt: In the Evening Air" with its melody line and slinky strutting bass (and Rakim's rap here isn't nearly as obnoxious). As proof I submit the best two tracks, the "Moments in Love"-inspired "Approximate Mood Swing No. 2" and "Pause," beautifully layered arrangements both, but overall far more Debussy than Noise. (I admit the last one I listen to as little as possible now because of an inseparable association with loneliness and isolation. After all, it was lean times back then, and it turns out living alone in a school full of high achievers is more isolating than you might think.) For an album this anxiously awaited it turned out to be a really mixed bag, neither meeting the standard for a comeback nor an artistic achievement, thus explaining why other than various compilations and reissues there's not been a lot of Noise nor Art since then. It's a shame because with a little more restraint and a little less hubris, the high points prove they might have really done something special with it. On the second disc of the deluxe issue are four equally irksome remixes of "Metaforce" that fail to improve on its fundamental problems; it would have been more interesting (and a better value) to include Reduction, the companion limited edition album of outtakes. Because I was a poor student, remember, I could only afford the 5-track version of the custom CD (I selected "An Extra Pulse of Beauty" as the title and cover art), which included various early takes and B-sides. If you were rich or silly, I think you could buy all 12, though I was and am neither; I'd call the ones I selected interesting, but in retrospect I could have done without the "live in studio" version of Beat Box ("One Made Earlier") even though the 12-inch version of "Closer (To The Edit)" I chose was almost Blue-Best Of quality. (Content: no concerns.)