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Album Review

by MIA

XL Recordings

Review Date
10th August 2010
Reviewed by
Brannavan Gnanalingam

One thing Maya Arulpragasam (MIA) could never accused of is being boring. She’s remarkably polarising – it’s easy to hate her sloganeering, her use of rhythm (to the point of overpowering melody, which for some people may be important) and her constructed persona. However, for her fans (such as me) she showcased the changing way of distributing music with her debut while simultaneously making herself a star (Piracy Funds Terrorism and Arular) and then wrote one of the last decade’s most excellent albums Kala (the perfect example of form informing content), an album which blended politics, multitude of references, and sheer punk energy into one of the most exciting albums around. However, the slow-burning success of that album got to the point where her public persona overshadowed the release of her latest album – which included a hatchet job of an interview with the New York Times (the Times issued a rare acknowledgement of getting it wrong in the print version) and a highly controversial video for single ‘Born Free’. But what of the music? Maya is a disappointment. However, like MIA at her best, it’s still a compelling listen – just without the songs to really match her talents.

The overall album is particularly cold – the passion which underlined her previous work seemingly lost in this album. The production, as usual, is stellar (ranging from Panda Bear loops to dubstep to unconventional found industrial sounds) – but it tended to mask that Arulpragasam’s lyrics and songs lack the punch expected. Whereas her voice was previously used as a rhythmic instrument – on Maya she sings instead. But she’s far more interested in letting the production take control – a point which works to an extent, but also means the unique personality which towered throughout her previous work was strangely subdued.

‘Stepping Up’ and ‘XXXO’ sound great in terms of energy and rhythm, but their lyrical banality gut any resonance they could have had (‘Stepping Up’ in particular is trite vocally). She’s at her provocative best in the menacing ‘Lovalot’ – “I really lovalot” becomes “I really love Allah” and “Obama” into “a bomber”, in effect using semantics for subversive purposes. A mid-album lull (including the dull ‘It Takes a Muscle’) cauterised the schizophrenic production though, adding to the feel that for all the ideas and provocations, the album does feel a little too much like Arulpragasam was throwing paint at the wall hoping that they’d stick into a coherent painting.

The album only really takes off with ‘Born Free’, a XTRMNTR-esque (in fact, Primal Scream’s underrated masterpiece is perhaps the closest touchstone for the feel of the album) rollicking ride through a vicious and brilliantly used Suicide sample. The momentum continues with the pulsating and arhythmic ‘Meds and Feds’. The Panda Bear-esque ‘Tell Me Why’ is let down by some uninteresting lyrics. The slightly downbeat ending of ‘Space’ isn’t as cathartic as it should be for such a punishing listen. However for all this, despite the fact I find this album in truth rather irritating, I can’t help but keep listening to it. It could well be an album that is ripe for re-evaluation in years to come: Arulpragasam’s blunt political homilies could have more resonance then – but in the meantime, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed given her brilliance in the past.

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