Perry Farrell Fuses Nostalgia With Futurism on ‘Kind Heaven’
There are changes in music that transform culture to an extent that is undeniable, even if they work their way in gradually. The elusive “grunge” moniker carelessly cast towards the ‘90s is usually credited to the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. The general idea, presumably, is a fusing of punk rock angst, pop sensibilities, metal marks of trade, and whatever else you pick up along the way. Before the scene was even a detectable phenomenon, there were a few emergent voices, such as that of the Perry Farrell–fronted Jane’s Addiction, a band that tapped into a certain collective essence before the public, at large, was even able to make sense of it. Over the years, Farrell has pursued a slew of other projects, most notably the creation of Lollapalooza, which you can credit for the innumerable, varied music festivals that you can flock to each year. His new album “Kind Heaven” is an updated, freewheeling showcase of all the free artistic impulse that has always made his music memorable.
There’s no buildup to this album. Perry Farrell is established enough to ostensibly do his own thing with no regard for convention whatsoever. There are a few ringing chords, and the music dives into an erratic romp that continues for the duration of the record. The opening track is titled “red, white, and blue (Cheerfulness,”) and the music fits its title, with a cheerful pomp and bombast that pokes fun at patriotism in the same way as, say, Greenday’s “American Idiot.” That whole shtick is beyond tired by now, but to Farrell’s credit, he leaves his lyrics and entire presentation open-ended enough to save it from falling into abysmal cliche. At once, there’s the classic sound that will make ‘90s survivors gush. A lot of artists who come up in a certain era and become emblematic of it end up forcing themselves to change with the times, and ultimately sound simply tawdry and sad. On the other end, there are those who cling religiously to a specific era’s sound in a way that’s perhaps even sadder. Farrell avoids both of these pitfalls, retaining the sonic spirit that we all know him by, but evolving naturally in a way that’s consistently engaging.
“Pirate Punk Politician” starts with a guitar riff that echoes Rage Against the Machine, followed by a voice like no other — expect an intense flashback, feeling the same way as you did when hearing “Mountain Song,” if you ever did. Added to this is glitchy, stuttering vocal processing in the style that has become the norm in hip-hop. Farrell has gone on record, talking about how he doesn’t consider hip-hop the highest form of art because artists in the genre generally start with someone else’s music — sampling. He has a point, and his adoption of elements from that genre are simply another demonstration of his free open-mindedness. There’s some dubstep wobble bass in the track, and the whole display is a rather random whirlwind of sounds, punctuated with exclamations like “Let’s go!” as if a very imaginative remix of Jane’s Addiction’s “Stop.” This level of enthusiasm makes one think, “Of course he created Lollapalooza.” Who else could have done it? The song title makes it quite clear whom the target of the song is, and the lyrics include “Ask me a simple question / I’m an information contradiction,” presumably an allusion to the “alternative facts” phenomenon.” As postmodernism strengthens its subjective grip on popular culture, feel free to challenge this review with your own “alternative facts.”
“Snakes Have Many Hips” is a contender for best song title ever. There’s a showtunes / amateur karaoke feel to the music that’s very camp, but in the best way possible. Lines like “You made a lousy friend, and so I made you my lover” echo the deliriously absurd, but somehow relatable lyrics of the Pixies, with their lines like “hips like Cinderella” from “Tame.” It takes a certain personality to make this work, as otherwise it would just raise eyebrows and induce cringes. Farrell pulls it off, so hats off to him. The song is replete with vaguely James Bond strings and backing vocals of “Watch them hips” that mock the silliness, in a clever, self-aware disclaimer.
As much as Farrell flows with the moment, he’s undeniably rooted in ‘90s spirit, and this especially comes out in “Machine Girl,” which has an elusive trace of the Smashing Pumpkins in it. There are industrial vibes, and the title itself conjures the images from classic Jane’s Addiction album artwork like that of 1988’s “Nothing’s Shocking.” This is the first of several songs to prominently feature Farrell’s wife Etty on vocals. There’s a school of thought that avoids all biographical information in order to interpret art without any bias, but given the relationship at a hand, it can’t help add another dimension to it. The two settle into a performance routine pretty quickly, with the ensuing song “One” coming across like alternative rock theater. It’s all sweeping gestures and blushes, and it gets a bit silly, but you have to appreciate the whimsicality of it. It has the feeling of a free jam, which is actually a hallmark trait of Farrell’s. He has always managed to package frenzies of sound that one wouldn’t expect to resonate broadly, in a way that actually does. Still, this song is a bit sappy, and takes an ambitious suspension of disbelief to endure.
The album develops as if Perry and Etty have been exchanging sidelong glances and finally get to business on “Where Have You Been All My Life.” There’s a classic arena-ready beat that has no name, subtle, sighing female vocals that give it a lot of primal edge, and an overall feel that recalls the likes of Jack White at his best — rock ‘n’ roll condensed, filtered, and magnified. At this point, it all veers into wide-eyed dreamy fare with “More Than I Could Bear,” a song stemming from “Sgt. Peppers,” and approaching steampunk aesthetics in its juxtaposition of lush strings and colloquial vocals.
Etty takes the lead on “Spend the Body,” a song that lives up to the connotations of its title. There’s a tin-can, industrial element to the core, and an eerie feel akin to “Portrait of an American Family”-era Marilyn Manson, albeit in a very subtle way, and with an overall festive essence. It’s the stuff of concerted pole dances and cage matches. For good measure, Farrell brings the album to closure with a song titled “Let’s All Pray For This World.” It’s a good old sing along, replete with unabashedly histrionic strings, “punk goes acoustic,” and an appropriate summing up of Farell’s overall aesthetics.
“Kind Heaven” is an album with a title that almost begs for dismissal in its connotations of cliche aged rock star syndrome. Fortunately, it doesn’t wallow into that realm at all. This is not an album for people seeking an easy pop punch — although it does exceedingly deliver that punch for those attune with Farrell’s general form. Otherwise, it’s still an exciting record, blending classic sounds with contemporary production, and offering subtle insights on the state of things at large. Overall, it captures the sound of a truly unique voice that has been pivotal in rock history, in a modern incarnation, to satisfying results.
“Kind Heaven” is available June 7 on Apple Music.