11:30 p.m. Sunday, February 8th, 2004
Joseph and I are spending the last thirty minutes of the week doing what we usually do during the last thirty minutes of the week: scrambling to get our content done for the next day’s Mundane Sounds update and having a healthy debate about music over AIM. We’re discussing Stereolab’s latest album Margerine Eclipse, which I happen to be listening to at the moment. Joseph feels that it’s neither their worst nor their best record. He expresses difficulty reviewing Eclipse because it seems “empty and hollow” without the presence of longtime Stereolab member Mary Hansen, who died prior to this album’s creation. I, on the other hand, feel that Eclipse is the band’s best and bounciest full-length since 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, and quickly seize the opportunity to assume responsibility for the review. While going back and forth with Joseph about the strengths and weaknesses of the album, something strange happens to me. At exactly 2:56 into the album’s tenth song, “Feel and Triple,” I start crying. I make no mention of this to Joseph, and maintain my steely High Fidelity façade for him until he finally logs off and go to bed. I put “Feel and Triple” on repeat for a full hour afterwards, and the tears don’t stop until I eject the CD from my computer.
10:00 a.m. Thursday, February 12th, 2004
Stereolab’s twelfth full-length Margerine Eclipse is an album that simply cannot exist outside of the context surrounding its creation. I don’t feel like I’m being redundant by mentioning that this is their first album since the passing of vocalist/keyboardist Mary Hansen, who had been a member of the band for 11 years. Hansen was hit by a truck while riding her bike, a death for which the words “unexpected” and “tragic” are mere understatements. It hadn’t been that long since another longtime member, Morgane Lhote, had quit the band. Their previous album, 2001’s Sound-Dust, while far from bad, seemed in retrospect like a sign of artistic decline. At the turn of the century, Stereolab were already in a rough patch, and Hansen’s death would have been the perfect excuse for Stereolab to quit while they were still ahead.
It is to Stereolab’s credit that they neither hide nor wallow in their grief on this record. The album is dedicated to Hansen in the credits, the words “Margerine,” “Marge” and “Mary” are used interchangeably in no less than a third of the songs, and the artwork is filled with tear-shaped designs. Nonetheless, the title of the album is a strong statement of intent. “Yes, we are sad that Mary’s gone,” the band is saying, “but we shall attempt to eclipse our own suffering and press on regardless.” Margerine Eclipse is proof that Stereolab have made the right decision, as Hansen’s death has breathed new life into the band.
Whereas most of the last decade’s Stereolab albums have been primarily influenced by the men producing them (Jim O’Rourke, John McEntire, Sean O’Hagan), this album takes its biggest stylistic cues from Stereolab themselves. Eclipse sounds like the byproduct of artistic lessons learned from the past eight years of the band’s career. “Margerine Rock” and “Hillbilly Motobike” are short, sharp shocks of Velvets-gone-motorik riffage that would have fit easily on Emperor Tomato Ketchup. The more discordant moments of “Vonal Declosion” and “La Demeure,” as well as the four-on-the-floor IDM/house of “Margerine Melodie” are as icy and sterile as anything on 1997’s Dots and Loops. The tiki-lounge atmospheres of Sound-Dust are sprinkled all over sections of “La Demeure” and album closer “Dear Marge.” The jangling guitars on “Cosmic Country Noir” and “The Man With 100 Cells” even reach all the way back to 1992’s Peng!, the group’s debut full-length. Stereolab even make room for disco (“Feel and Triple”) and Stax-style boogie (“Bop Scotch”). Because of the band’s limitless knowledge of pop history and fragmented approach to songwriting, almost every track sounds like snippets of three songs from wildly divergent eras of music, and the transitions are almost always seamless.
The production of this album is also noteworthy. The album’s dual-mono recording guarantees a killer headphone experience. Each song sounds as if a different version of itself is playing on each speaker. There are often two distinct parts for every instrument, from the organs and guitars to the drums and vocals. However, the mix remains consonant and clutter-free even at its densest. Hansen’s absence is slightly felt in the vocal arrangements. Although lead singer Laetitia Sadier harmonizes with herself quite well, her voice is lower, huskier, and less reedy than Mary’s. How Stereolab will pull off such multilayered harmonies live without Mary is anybody’s guess, but on record they’re still a blast to listen to.
The most striking difference between Margerine Eclipse and the band’s previous albums is the newfound emotional gravitas that the recent tragedy has seemingly brought to the lyrics. Other than the obvious tributes to Mary (“Feel and Triple” and “Dear Marge”), Stereolab haven’t chosen radically different topics to write about. According to these good little Marxists, society still wildly vacillates between irreconcilable extremes (“Cosmic Country Noir,” “Margerine Rock”), and competition is hardwired into our brains from birth (“Margerine Melodie”). Most humans are afraid of change (“The Man with 100 Cells”), while others have been crying out for change for far too long (“La Demeure”). Sadier’s been singing such broad political statements for more than a decade, but the softness of her voice has allowed me to tune them out…until now. The songs about Mary, coupled with the presence of what I think is the first direct love song that Stereolab has ever written (“…Sudden Stars”), betray a wellspring of emotion that I never thought could exist on a Stereolab record. This wellspring is something that the band’s probably had all this time, but I was being too much of a hipster to notice…
This, of course, brings me back to me getting all “verklempt” over “Feel and Triple” this past Sunday. I think that the main reason why I enjoy Margerine Eclipse so much is that it’s taught me a valuable lesson. In times of loss, instead of focusing on what’s missing, it is imperative that we make note of and cherish the things that still remain. Mary’s death has transformed the album from merely another great Stereolab album into a testimony of the strength of the human spirit…and dammit, that MOVES me.