A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the 2LP reissue of Surrender by The Chemical Brothers.
Then as now, the conventional wisdom is that Dig Your Own Hole has the biggest of The Chemical Brothers’ entries into the mainstream but, for this critic’s money, the greatest creative triumph of the group’s storied career is their third full-length, Surrender. With Surrender, the group had the mainstream’s attention and knew it, but rather than shying away or being evasive of their new stature (as many artists have been prone to doing) The Chemical Brothers boldly responded to the attention and interest by stepping up their game and answered the praise they’d so graciously been afforded by doing something deserving of it; where Dig Your Own Hole featured two big ticket guests contributing vocals, Surrender features four, the songs are bigger, bolder, poppier and less obviously club-identified and the production is just brassier in general. Simply said, Surrender is deserving of all the attention and praise The Chemical Brothers were drawing at the time.
As the sound builds dramatically to open the album’s A-side as well as its first song, “Music: Response,” both listeners familiar with the group as well as the new blood which was flocking to the Brothers’ banner will be able to feel their anticipation start rising, spontaneously. To this day, whether or not the song did (at the time) or would ever get any play in a club setting (other than as the warm-up spin before the doors open, perhaps) remains questionable, but there’s no doubt about its quality as a great headphone monument. “Music: Response” would end up destined to open up innumerable mixtapes made throughout the near-two-decade span since Surrender‘s release too – and for very good reason.
With the bar set straight away, Surrender has no trouble keeping its energy up as the album’s A-side continues. “Under The Influence” is the only other cut which appears on the first side of the album (it is the oddball, in that regard – the other three sides of the 2LP reissue all feature three songs each), but it in no way ends up coming off as feeling lean. Rather, the song is allowed to stand basically unencombered and be heard as the great player it is. Here, after the song touches down with some great, spacey and atmospheric sounds which can rewrite a listener’s senses, on the right day, a wobbling bass figure and urgent drum part get to work moving listeners both physically and emotionally (read: getting them in the mood to move and party), and the differences about how it’s done here are very surprising. While the group had previously utilized multiple samples in their music to help move he songs along, they use different sounds to do so here but not different samples which would allow the song to play in near perpetuity if listeners had the desire to program their stereos as such; “Under The Influence” could just play constantly without getting boring and that is what will have listeners of this reissue ready to flip the proverbial disc after the song runs out – even if they’re familiar with it, they’ll need more.
And, in flipping the record as they ride that energy, that’s when listeners will be elated to find the treasure trove which appears on Surrender‘s B-side. There, the side’s star power is apparent straight away as “Out Of Control” pushes in with some manic, synth-y sound effects and an instantly more lyrically involved and more coherent vocal offering from Joy Division/New Order majordomo Bernard Sumner than had ever come from any of Chemical Brothers’ prior contributors to that point. Lines like, “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been misunderstood/The rivers running deep right through my blood/ Your naked body’s laying out on the ground/ You always get me up when I’m down” leap out at listeners and grab them dearly as “Out Of Control” plays its way out and – maybe just to prove it’s possible – Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons simply endeavor to mix the song in a manner much like a rock song (verse/chorus/verse, et cetera)with Sumner’s vocals running up the center of the mix and everything else panned to the left and right. It might sound simple and obvious, but the results are revelatory and sort of provide the template that many other artists who wanted to get some electronica in their palette (see Alabama 3, Fatboy Slim and more) would utilize regularly thereafter. It might seem unusual, but it was The Chemical Brothers who set that precedent.
After “Out Of Control,” Chemical Brothers fall back upon their trip hop go-to vibe to collect themselves for a couple of minutes (well, three) in the form of “Orange Wedge,” but that dalliance proves to be easily forgettable as soon as “Let Forever Be” – arguably the single biggest pop hit ever to bear The Chemical Brothers’ name – comes bolting out to close the album’s second side. There, several sideshow sound effects swish and swirl around to add just the right amount of tension (or to act as the aural cues for the eye candy sweetened music video) behind the otherwise sunshine-y sonics set up by the group and the at least sort-of-poppy vocal performance supplied by Oasis’ Noel Gallagher. Overall, of course, the song was a runaway success and was the great big proof that many skeptics needed in order to believe that rock and rave cultures could coexist in one capacity or another and produce music of enduring appeal.
After “Let Forever Be” closes out Surrender‘s B-side, “The Sunshine Underground”opens up the C- on a decidedly different, bright (and some would say Flaming Lips-ish) tack which feels more acid-touched than ecstasy-fuelled. That song in and of itself – with its uncharacteristically tinny and mock utopian sounds and very mid-tempo movement – remains the most divisive one in the Chemical Brothers’ catalogue; it sounds nothing like anything else and could be taken as abhorrent as a result, yet there’s also something attractive about it at the same time. Looking at the song now (and listening to it objectively), “The Sunshine Underground” could be seen as a great but unexplored musical avenue that The Chemical Brothers opened but never explored; it stands as proof of the amount of potential that Rowlands and Simons had at their disposal – given that they were able to just cast it aside so easily. After that, “Asleep Form Day” and “Got Glint?” return to the Chemical Brothers’ clubby strong suit to round out the side which, at the time of the album’s release, would have gotten over brilliantly on their strength of the multitude of hooks set into them but, now, they just play through as solid timepieces to help memories surface in fans but not get people primed for clubs like they used to.
The final flip to Side D reveals where the Chemical Brothers bring Surrender back to center and drop two more bombs before walking away clean – just to prove they can. First, listeners who have gone front-to-back with the album will find they’re snapped back to attention immediately as “Hey Girl Hey Boy” chugs in to ope the side and easily reinvigorates the bodily rhythms of those listening. To this day – while it could easily be argued that the vocal is catering to the lowest common denominator on the dance floor – the rhythm of “Hey Girl Hey Boy” is a marvel; the weird little synth sample which reoccurs for the duration of the song operates as the hook while the bear inspires heads to begin bobbing regardless of the location that a listener may be, and the song is set right there. Listeners are locked in and begin to move with it involuntarily. There are a few things to hate about the songs effect on a listener, but none are significant enough to make any listener try to walk away from it. They’ll be held dearly from the top of the song to its end and then ushered through the fairly static denouement
which is the title track and “Dream On.” Simply lumping those last two songs together like that feels like a soft option, but there’s no way to say that they don’t function as a pair; the subdued and almost static-y “chill out” vibes which drive “Surrender” make the fact that the album is wearing down unavoidable, and then “Dream On” just seems to ramble off into oblivion – losing steam as it fades. Really, while the combination of those last three songs doesn’t feel like the most satisfying conclusion when they’re all lumped together on vinyl (comparatively, other individual sides of Surrender are far better), they fit beautifully with the rest of the set – if one looks at it as a whole.
And looking at the album as a whole, it is definitely difficult to argue the quality of Surrender. There’s no denying that, on this album, Chemical Brothers pushed the possibilities about their music nearly to the brink (and the flaws on the album are a great representation of the edge to which they pushed), but it remains a great album in spite of that; because it boldly goes so far and does include so much, it’s easy to become completely immersed in the music – even now, almost twenty years after its original release and the warmth of the vinyl heightens the music, marvelously. [Bill Adams]
The vinyl reissue of The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.