by Josh Potter
In the calm before the storm, a simple voice asks a simple question: “Do you think that if you were falling in space that you would slow down after a while or go faster and faster?” It’s Donna Hayward from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me — an ominous sample to begin an ominous opening track. But like a PCP-induced fever dream, omens turn to nightmares, and like something plucked from the pages of George Orwell or Phillip K. Dick, the nightmare proves itself to be far more scary and far more real than a mere night-time fantasy. “This is the sound of what you don’t know killing you.” The hook spouts it and the album embodies it. I’d tell you to run for cover, but this whole thing’s been brewing for too long to turn back now. We’ve seen it all coming and have no choice but to ride it out. Believe me, it’ll be worth it. “Cop a feel or two.”
Four years in the making, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead has been rightfully described as El-P’s “post-traumatic stress album.” It’s a harrowing, visceral concept album, as much a response to the Draconian, post-9/11 world, as to personal tribulations. Its goal of capturing the political by representing the personal results in a fully-realized 13-track dystopia of searing guitars, dissonant electronics, and heavy industrial beat-scapes. It’s the much anticipated follow-up to 2002’s Fantastic Damage, and has been heralded by some as the most important rap album of 2007, as early as Fall 2006.
Employing his Gay Dog method of collaboration (pulled from the South Park episode in which George Clooney appears as a gay dog), El-P has assembled a veritable who’s-who of the contemporary music world to lend the disc additional gravity. Trent Reznor, Omar and Cedric of the Mars Volta, Chan Marshall, and Tunde of TV on the Radio are just a few of his guests. I’ll Sleepâ€¦ . finds El-P behind the microphone as well as the MPC, trading cryptic verses with Def Jux legionnaires Aesop Rock, Cage, and Mr. Lif.
In fact, his top-notch production value aside, it’s El-P’s lyricism that carries the day and holds the sprawling beast of an album together. Slipping in and out of characters, reprising earlier themes and using the power of suggestion as much as the gift of gab, the narrative tug of the album drags the helpless listener through the muck and mire of the tracks, teasing him with a glimmer of hope in the end.
From when the newpie dip sparks in the first verse of “Tasmanian Pain Coaster,” “the whole design got (his) mind cryin'” and it won’t let up. In “Up All Night” Lif tells El “we’re all deranged/ I’m no different/ I wish my hope still existed.” Yet in “Drive” El “hopped in the hooptie screamin’ freedom is mine.” It’s not optimism, though, so much as desperate resilience. “Dear Sirs” finds El allerting the powers that be that he will not in even the most unlikely situations fight their war, ever. Even after having to execute his lover in “Habeas Corpses” the issue is determined to be a matter of “faith versus physics,” and the plea goes out in “Flyentology” to “keep me in the sky that’s all that I cry/ I’ll become your servant if it’s worth your time.” When the newpie’s burned to the filter in “Poisenville Kids No Wins,” nothing’s been resolved, but it seems that the issue at hand has at least come into better focus. “How the fuck do you explain your own self-destruction,” El muses, “and still remain trusted?”
Self-destruction aside, El-P has little to fear in the trust department. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is the album that the hype-machine always expected he’d make — unsettling, urgent and necessary. It’s an album to be feared for the same reason it ought to be sought out. It’s one big helping of tough-love and even a spoon full of sugar isn’t going to help it go down. Don’t expect that the free-fall is going to slow down anytime soon, because as Laura Palmer speculates, through a haze of reverb, in response to Donna’s question, “for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything, then you’d burst into fire. And the angels wouldn’t help you because they’d all gone away.”