If Brian Eno creates music for Films, Fatboy Slim makes Music for Car Commercials – turbocharged beats that accelerate through samples and career through choruses to deliver easy adrenaline and cheap thrills. That’s not a knock – sometimes a D.J. with an obvious beat is just a good D.J. – and his 1998 album You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby tracked like a thrilling, if disconnected, reel of carefully crafted car-chase scenes.
But a Grammy nomination, three MTV awards, and a platinum record would make any pop star ambitious, and on Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Astralwerks), it sometimes sounds as though what Fatboy Slim really wants is to be an auteur. High-minded enough to borrow his album title from Oscar Wilde (even if he’s grounded enough to admit he got the idea stumbling around a star-packed party in L.A.), Fatboy stretches his definition of dance music to include preaching (“Drop the Hate”), poetry by Jim Morrison (“Sunset Bird of Prey”), and live Macy Gray vocals ("Love Life” and “Demons”). For the first time, Fatboy’s famous eclecticism even expands his emotional range; those four songs don’t evoke Saturday-night fever so much as a Sunday-morning coming down.
Of course, it’s as easy to wring the illusion of depth out of Morrison as it is to pack a dance floor with an anthem like “The Rockafeller Skank,” and Fatboy still hasn’t met a sucker punch he didn’t like. But the obviousness that makes the spiritualism of “Drop the Hate” sound only skin-deep works wonders on straightforward techno tunes like “Star 69.” And though his search for dance-floor transcendence gives the album emotional heft as well as a sense of pacing, the best songs on Halfway are the ones that look straight into the gutter and dive right in, corny catchphrases and all. “Ya Mama” – which will likely do for “Push the tempo” what “The Rockafeller Skank” did for “the funk soul brother” – is sped-up, silly, and, in the end, one of the more memorable songs on the album. It’s enough to make an auteur look back fondly on his car-commercial period.
Dark, desolate, and so simple it hurts, Nebraska is the Bruce Springsteen album punk-rockers can love. Recorded as four-track demos, mostly with just acoustic guitar and harmonica, it’s an oddity even in an unconventional career: understated instead of anthemic, and focused on quotidian detail rather than grand themes. For an artist who had spent his career searching for connections, it was an unflinching look at what can happen when the ties that bind dissolve into false hopes and empty promises.
None of which makes it a likely subject for a tribute album, even one recorded almost entirely on four-track itself, and most of the artists on Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ (Sub Pop) seem either underwhelmed or overshadowed by the original. What makes Nebraska gripping – what makes Springsteen an important artist to begin with – are the performances rather than the songs, and the lyrics he inhabits so deeply seem clichéd in the hands of others. When, on “State Trooper,” Springsteen sings “License, registration: I ain’t got none / But I got a clear conscience ‘bout the things that I done,” it seems to encompass an entire outlaw morality. Coming from Deana Carter, it’s just a nice rhyme.
Most of the artists on the tribute seem to believe that what can’t be inhabited can be oversung or, worse, sentimentalized. Springsteen didn’t find any easy answers singing about serial killer Charles Starkweather on the title track – the final line of the song is “They wanted to know why I did what I did / Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” – but Chrissie Hynde and Adam Seymour treat the lyrics almost as a benediction. At least they engage the material: Los Lobos and Hank Williams III have a rollicking good time with “Johnny 99” and “Atlantic City,” both desperate songs about men driven to desperate measures. The folk-influenced artists fare better – Dar Williams resists getting sentimental on “Highway Patrolman,” and Ani DiFranco finds the sublimated anger in “Used Cars” – but only “Mansion on the Hill” adds anything to the original. Over a tape loop and piano, Eric Bachmann, performing under the name Crooked Fingers, adds a sense of sonic claustrophobia to a song about constricting possibilities. Bleak and direct, it’s as lonely as the characters on the album.