Before I listened to Silicon’s Personal Computer, the band’s name and album title had me bracing for a sardonic criticism of social interaction in the age of smartphones. I wasn’t excited. Not that I don’t agree with much of the pushback cropping up against tech these days, but I admit I’m tiring of the wave of meditations—some earnest, some ironic—about how we’re all a little detached in the age of the iPhone and Facebook, yada yada. The first seconds of the album’s opener and title track, “Personal Computer,” confirmed my suspicions. An electronic, droning voice (think male Siri) enters, saying “Never be lonely, personal computer / Someone that’s listening, personal computer.”
But what follows is stranger and much more delightful than all of that suggests. Defying expectations (of theme, genre, mood), Silicon presents a debut album that draws on past and present so masterfully that it seems at moments to float above time, in the insomnia-fueled half-dream in which it was apparently conceived. From the jazz-infused, offbeat “God Emoji” to the disco-inflected and charmingly weird “Little Dancing Baby” and beyond, Personal Computer presents music that is at once familiar and entirely its own.
In some ways, though, that’s exactly what we should expect. The man behind Silicon, New Zealand’s Kody Nielson, has garnered an impressive reputation at home with his musical abilities and general boldness. His former band, The Mint Chicks, which he founded with his brother Ruban Nielson of the genre-bending and audience-pleasing Unknown Mortal Orchestra, gained a cult following for its explosive music and stage antics (on at least one occasion involving chainsaws). Both Nielson brothers have since left punk and chainsaws behind for more subdued forms of music—Ruban with UMO’s funky psych-rock, and now, Kody, who follows his brother’s album from earlier this year, Multi-Love, with equal musical dexterity.
Employing synth voices in sparse, straightforward but clever compositions and singing in a muted falsetto, Silicon creates synthpop that—despite the genre’s reputation for electronic dispassionateness—manages to be soulful. One of the highest praises I can give it is that it contains shades of D’Angelo, both in vocal sound and in seemingly simple instrumental lines that break down into hidden complexity. Though Silicon occasionally fails to push through, its oddness and electronic effects distancing it from the listener, it does share with the “R&B Jesus” a kind of mesmerizing sleepiness, seducing with easygoing confidence and music routed in solid musicianship.
For particularly seductive tunes, check out the catchy refrain of “Cellphone” and “Burning Sugar,” whose funky bass line, wah-wah accents, and melody reminds me a bit of Marvin Gaye circa “War Is Not the Answer.” The comparisons stop there, though; unlike Gaye, Silicon’s message is obscured (for more on that, attempt to interpret this video, which seems to be as much a poetry manifesto as an album trailer). But even if the album’s stance on the tech it utilizes isn’t entirely clear, mine has solidified: If this is what the age of smartphones produces, then keep the gadgets coming.