Why do we still get excited about collaborations? Honestly, how many times have these things let us down: two or three artists that you like get together, and you're so psyched you create all manner of postulations to back why this record will be a career watermark for all parties involved. Then you press 'play' and...well, that wasn't as great as you expected.
Perhaps the biggest issue lies in that expectation. An assumption that, whether we're conscious of it or not, if the separate values of each artist are 4 and 5, then the collaboration should yield a value of 9? And our disappointment then stops us from seeing the value of a very respectable 6.
Art ain't mathematics, but collaborations' sort of rock'n'roll equation does require some form of addition and subtraction in order to work well. These two recent outings provide examples of records that, if not career highs, are certainly very strong justifications for coming together in the first place. One seeks to parse their songwriting styles down into their most basic shapes; the other exponentially builds on the collective daring of those involved to create something that is anything but basic. And it's not surprising which is which.
Divine Fits combines Spoon mainman Britt Daniel and Handsome Furs/Wolf Parade belter Dan Boeckner. Both gentlemen specialize in a brand of pop/rock that is heavy on wiry grit, sexual tension, and rock'n'roll tropes that have existed since the days of Berry and Lewis. Neither of these gentlemen have ever been especially afraid of saying less when they could say more—the collected works of Spoon and Handsome Furs are bursting with songs built on a single riff, a skeletal drum pattern, a lone sample.
Even so, Divine Fits finds the pair refining their voices even further, as though the newly established presence of another in the room (something Daniel is far less used to than Boeckner) has led them to choose their words and moments with the greatest of care and confidence. The result is an album that sounds like an exact 50/50 mix of both personalities, each man politely waiting their turn to take the lead with a respectfulness that's a touch polite, even. But it also happens to yield a really solid (if not great) rock'n'roll record—an immediate, assured debut for which most new groups would kill.
The vibe surrounding the new project by David Byrne and St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark) is, not surprisingly, a very different affair. Though Clark's résumé is much shorter than that of Byrne, she's displayed cunning skill and restless ambition over her three albums that go beyond her relatively tender years (not unlike the massive leaps and bounds made by Byrne with Talking Heads' first few albums). She's also a vet of a few one-off song collaborations, making her the perfect candidate to be paired with the iconoclastic Byrne; you know she's going to be able to hold her own in a room with him and not shrink. (Of course, given Byrne's history of enthusiastic support of other artists via his excellent Luaka Bop label, you except him to be nothing but nurturing.)
Indeed, Love This Giant is an album that is at times overgrown with the fertile ideas of the pair. If Divine Fits seek to trim and groom their ultra-cool façade to the point of absolute purity, Byrne and Clark carry on like a pair of gleefully eager greenthumbs, watering every idea in sight until their songs are an overgrown thatch of vibrant shades and textures. If their sheer potency is impressive, it's also something that provides no obvious throughway—no clear path to walk into their wild forest. So you kind of stand back a few paces and take it in.
It's well worth the view, though. If the bouncing, ever-present horns feel like too many vines clogging your aural canal at first, they become increasingly enticing over time—joyous and silly, never too proud to invite you along for the ride. So too does the vocal trading of the two singers (the very opposite of the even division of the Fits) go from impulsive and unsettled to natural and instinctual after increased exposure.
Love This Giant is still, after many listens, a tough album to figure. There's certainly more depth in the lyrics to be plundered and the arrangements will likely also bear further fruit somewhere around listen number 30. But whether it's a one-off or not, these two are meant to be together in ways just as vital as Daniel and Boeckner’s. Neither records are necessarily that '9' for which one might hope when they first hear news of the pairings. But the respectable scores they both do attain on these albums is more than enough reason for any of us already interested to enthusiastically buy in.