I hear a love story on the Chemical Brothers’ Surrender. It’s about two brothers from a different mother—sad, ordinary kids who went to a rave and found themselves seduced by a big beat. Time stood still in a nonstop now-ness, the past only good for sampling and the future merely one more life-changing record away. The brothers loved the big beat, and the big beat loved them.
But eventually the brothers had to come back down to a normality that left them sadder than before. They couldn’t get back to the big beat, only its memory. Yet it was those memories that told them what they must do. The brothers learned they had to hear the beats in the world around them and love them unconditionally. Every kind of beat then felt brighter and more beautiful because the brothers had willed it that way. Life became one big beat.
It’s a happy story lacking the aggression that warmed extreme-sports fans and rock critics alike to ’95’s Exit Planet Dust and ’97’s Dig Your Own Hole, and so Surrender may disappoint listeners expecting another batch of bitchin’ breakbeats. With their hazy Beth Orton interludes and laddish cameos, those earlier albums attempted a narrative, but buried it under a dumb bravado that tried to shake off house and disco’s feminine side, ending up more gratingly repetitious than those two musics ever were.
As its title hints, Surrender is much more tender, accepting, spiritual even. With its encyclopedic rhythms, sweeping tempo shifts, ornate arrangements, and expansive melodies, the latest by Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands suggests a cross between those wildly lavish Eurodisco concept albums where Voyage and Alec R. Costandinos with his Syncophonic Orchestra would take dancers on fanciful journeys and the best Krautrock LPs by Can and Amon Düül II that packed more psychedelia than the Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground discs from which they stole. There’s no filler here, and the bridges between euphoric peaks are nearly as absorbing as the highs they’re meant to support.
The trip begins with the midtempo warm-up “Music: Response.” A practically unrecognizable sample from Nicole and Missy’s “Make It Hot” beckons, “I got whatcha want, I got whatcha need” as toytown melodies ricochet between bass and treble, rumble and twitter. “Under the Influence” picks up the pace with synth squiggles layered in bizarre harmonies dashing between hissing hi-hats. It’s one of the least tuneful cuts, but it’s catchy and bouncy in that absurdly compelling French house style, and it sets up the suspense for the album’s biggest payoff.
Just as “Shudder/King of Snake” on Underworld’s recent Beaucoup Fish pays tribute to Giorgio Moroder’s epochal synth arpeggio in Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” “Out of Control” sports a manic two-chord sequencer riff learnt from Bobby Orlando’s punkier production for Divine’s “Native Love,” a rowdy hi-NRG anthem previously pillaged by Nitzer Ebb, the Prodigy, even New Order. That band’s Bernard Sumner returns to revisit his past with an extended track recalling the pioneering act’s moody wordy verses, cracking syn-drums, and clanging guitars. The Brothers punctuate the ends of Sumner’s deadpan phrases with their wackiest sci-fi sound effects until the beat suddenly drops out, a key change materializes, and New Ordered guitars take over. Then the sequencer returns, an unexpected additional verse arrives, and Sumner’s chorus comes back for one last climax. I can’t wait to hear a deejay brave enough to play this.
“Orange Wedge” provides a funky breather before “Let Forever Be” announces Oasis’s Noel Gallagher and his corny-ass George Harrison impersonation. It’s not as good as his previous one on “Setting Sun” because he’s much more recognizable, because I hate him more than ever, and because his lyrical grammatical errors prove how stupid he is. But the slap-happy beat kicks, and all the backward strings are quite groovy. “Got Glint?” recalls Mr. Fingers and the early days of house, while the current single, “Hey Boy Hey Girl,” recycles old-school rap snippets, looped Kraftwerk madness, and a lotta churning sonic mutation. “Dream On” brings the whole shebang to a close by wrapping a simple lullaby by Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue in a sweeter variant on My Bloody Valentine’s symphonic feedback din.
It’s an album full of allusions and illusions, but love stories are often like that. Although it’s not the radical departure it might have been with different guest stars, Surrender announces a shift in the English dance mainstream the Brothers now represent, away from the reckless goofiness of big beat into something more melodic and deeply felt. Unlike the pair’s previous work, it’s not a model that can be easily duplicated by a million bedroom deejays, so it won’t be as influential underground. But I bet enlightened sectors of the rock world will get with its narrative flow, sonic splendor, and all-embracing beat devotion. It already suggests what OK Computer might have sounded like conceived by a dance act, with love as its subject rather than Radiohead’sdread. It could also make the dancefloor a nicer place this summer. And that would be the happiest ending of all.