Let’s assume for the moment that today’s “independent” music scene is an aesthetically—or failing that, ethically—unified realm, and that its citizenry is capable of doing certain kinds of useful cultural work: indie rock captures generational ennui; indie pop distills wistful romance from wide-eyed juvenilia; indie rap wrestles with dialectical contradictions, etc. So far, so good. But there’s still something missing. It’s an absence that occasionally drives even the most dogmatic indie acolytes sheepishly to the pleasures of Top 40, because what’s missing is the something that’s fueled meaningful music since the dawn of time: Indie music, created and imbibed by the most earnest boys and girls, lacks sexual danger.
Which is what makes the first 50 seconds of the Junior Boys’ second LP, So This Is Goodbye, very nearly revelatory. Over the sparest of synthesized warbles, Boys mastermind Jeremy Greenspan goes for broke, his ghostly, reverbed voice heaping on an unnamed lover insult (“you’re two-faced”) upon insult (“you’re dry-eyed”) upon come-on (“you’re sideways”). The tension in “Double Shadow” crescendos relentlessly, then abruptly culminates in the best aural climax, indie or otherwise, so far this year: “You’re for keeps / and deep sleeps / you catch up / you young pup / you old dog / you good fuck.” Then the bottom drops out, transforming “Shadow” into an honest-to-goodness, though disturbingly subdued, dance track.
The icy, sexy Goodbye doesn’t disavow indie earnestness so much as take it to its logical extreme: the menacing stalker anthem. It reveals, in other words, an exhilarating thematic progression to the Junior Boys’ brief career. Last Exit (2004), their Internet word-of-click hit, was justly praised for its Timbaland-influenced soundscapes, but arguably more interesting were Mr. Greenspan’s lyrics, which adopted emo’s sensibility but shed its debilitating overstatement, its reliance on litanies of wrongs done and attachments regretted. The result was pristine, minimalist melancholy; no hook that year sunk quite as deep as the whispered lament from “Birthday”: “You’ve gone and now you’ve missed my birthday / You’ve gone and left me on my own.” It’s a thin line between melancholy and menace—just ask Hamlet.
“Double Shadow” is followed on Goodbye by “The Equalizer,” another counterintuitive wonder of computers and compulsion. The track starts with what sounds like a sterile digitized recording of a steam engine chugging, before Mr. Greenspan enters, apparently now fully cognizant of the deadly edge latent even in Last Exit’s most sentimental whispers. “So now,” he snarls, “there’ll be no lessons, no more cures / till you get yours, baby / in the end.” Sonically, “Equalizer” speaks in the now-familiar idiom of distant blips and pings, but even such inhuman noises become emotionally, erotically fraught as they alternate noticeably between thick, oily drops and hollow percolator drips. These are the love songs of the future, and the future is sublimely bleak.
A word about Mr. Greenspan’s voice: It remains almost tragically limited—thin, reedy, often barely post-pubescent. When he pushes its limits too far (as on “First Time” and “Like a Child,” the two tracks on Goodbye closest to conventional pop balladeering), it unfortunately pushes back, and the result is an unruly and unseemly half-wail. But for the most part, Mr. Greenspan is smart enough to treat this limitation as an asset, casting himself as the Lost Boy of Psychological Fragility. In the proper context, even the straining falsetto works: “In the Morning” finds it mixed with threatening huffing and puffing, and one begins to imagine the Junior Boys topping the hip-hop charts on some distant, desolate planet. “Girlfriend it’s not over,” Mr. Greenspan insists on “In the Morning”—“’Cause in the morning / There’s a million years to choose from / You don’t care, just take one … Because you’re too young.”
At once adolescently cloying and boyishly lascivious, you might call Mr. Greenspan the Justin Timberlake of cutting-edge electropop, if Mr. Timberlake himself wasn’t so openly becoming the Justin Timberlake of cutting-edge electropop. Will the summer of 2006 be remembered as the moment in pop history when song-arrangement orthodoxy irrevocably dissolved? In his epochal single “SexyBack,” Mr. Timberlake “take[s] ’em to the bridge” twice, thereby changing forever the definition of the radio-hit bridge. With its amorphous choruses and ensconced hooks, Goodbye does its part on the hipster end of things, even contributing a demented electronic deconstruction of Frank Sinatra’s “When No One Cares.”
If the big idea behind messing with Mr. S. was to tickle our brains, then the Boys missed their target; the result is something much more visceral. Mr. Greenspan croons in half-speed: “You can’t believe a love like hers / Could come from someone new / When no one cares—but you.” Milked for all they’re worth, Ol’ Blue Eyes’ words become sinister, pathological, almost sadistic.
But perhaps they always were; it seems sexy sulked and skulked—and stalked—but never really left. And now sexy has met indie. Hide the kids.