I often wonder if Ian Curtis had any idea of the legacy Joy Division would have on musicians young and old. I wonder if he predicted the emergence of a platform like Tumblr, where teenagers who heard “Love Will Tear Us Apart” one time subsequently purchased Unknown Pleasures banners and proudly hung them over their bedroom doors. Curtis ripped open the door for artists keen on expressing the inner turmoil bubbling beneath the flashing lights and glam rock tunes of the 80s, with his lyrical emphasis on alienation and loneliness. Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, Interpol and Danny Brown (his fourth album, Atrocity Exhibition is named after the Joy Division song) are just a handful of artists who wouldn’t have evolved into the artists they are without the fleeting existence of a little post-punk band from Salford, England.
Now, New York-based electronic artist Chris Stewart has released his third album under the Black Marble moniker, Bigger Than Life. The album follows 2016’s It’s Immaterial, which was labeled as an “Ian Curtis-garage dance party you’ve never been to” by Kristin Porter at SLUG Magazine. With comments like that, Stewart left himself nowhere to go but up. More coldwave than his post-punk roots, Bigger Than Life hosts another dance party, adding a bit more polish without depriving us sad suckers the melancholia we so crave.
Like all Black Marble albums, Stewart recorded, produced, and played every instrument on Bigger Than Life and used solely analog gear. Although Stewart plays every instrument on each track, Emily Edrosa makes an appearance and lends additional guitar in “Private Show.” A darkly entrancing track, their collaboration couldn’t be better. “Private Show” draws links to the biggest fears of people, including our wavering mortality, our terrors, and, of course, our yearnings. Set over swift drum machines and swirling synths, the mournful bass notes beneath Stewart’s stories complement them further. “And I’d rather not sleep/’cause I know that I’ll just see you in my dreams,” Stewart muses before a delicate solo from Edrosa. In a statement from Stewart, he shared that by the end of “Private Show,” the narrator “feels destined for the path of solitude yet makes an effort to find another kindred spirit for the journey.” This private spectacle isn’t so exclusive, after all.
Bright synths that inspire handclaps open “Feels,” followed by a story of a man stuck on a merry-go-round. “I used to have a radio show,” Stewart laments. “But not a lot of time, though.” Demonstrating his consistently exceptional bass notes, “Grey Eyeliner” sees Stewart push a weighty melody upfront. On “Shoulder,” Stewart echoes the best of New Order. Like the finest New Order songs, the instrumentation couldn’t be brighter, the vocal remains still, and the ghosts of his past sit above the bedroom window.
Bigger Than Life was born out of the need to create something positive from facing turmoil. Tired of talking about himself and his problems, Stewart decided to project his voice as “a part of a lineage of people trying to do a little something instead of trying to create a platform for myself individually.” How well did he achieve that goal?
Stewart gets so close on multiple occasions. There aren’t any bad songs here. But nothing connects like “Private Show” does. I was filled with excitement upon hearing that track. I was transported back to my childhood – yeah, yeah, I know I was born well after the heyday of new wave – where my dad would crank up his speakers every time “Blue Monday” played. I have an affinity with new wave and waited for its comeback for a long time. In June this year, Danish duo Lust for Youth (also on Sacred Bones Records) released their eponymously titled sixth album. Listening to Bigger Than Life, I couldn’t help contrasting it with Lust for Youth. The latter’s exploration concerning our planet’s climate crisis and inward turns towards human relationships is truly thrilling, as is their voyage through 90s Europop to pensive balladry. Bigger Than Life sorely needs a big chorus or a time change that knocks you off your seat. As catchy as Stewart’s melodies are, without a hook to boost his songs, the big moments fall flat.
Stewart’s lo-fi production allows for a familiar feeling we all enjoy. His upbeat synth and drum machines get the head-bopping, and his insights into human relationships and our fears are one of the many highlights to be found in Bigger Than Life. I just craved a grander moment.