Jean Renoir’s 1939 film The Rules Of The Game observes the class hierarchy of a French country home by examining both the bourgeoisie and the staff of the estate. It’s a funny and deeply sad movie that conjures much of its power from its ability to toggle between the perspectives of each character, often in a single long take. On “The Rule Of The Game,” the first track of her second solo album, Silencio, former Stereolab singer Laetitia Sadier describes the ruling class by saying they are “drawn to cruel games, pointless pleasures, impulsive reflexes.” It’s the first of many political points to be made on the record, and it’s a harsh one, but the swirling lilt of the music behind her gives Sadier’s theory-packed sentiments a touch of Renoir’s gentle humanism. It prods but doesn’t push.
This has been Stereolab’s approach for years: Marxist rhetoric meets gleefully imaginative lounge-pop. Now that the group has gone on an indefinite hiatus, Sadier has picked up where they left off, releasing 2010′s The Trip and now another solo effort. Silencio, the newest record, is the most stridently political of the two, positioning its simultaneously gloomy and hopeful worldview front and center in most of the lyrics. As is often the case with any Stereolab-related project, you’re free to engage or disregard the philosophizing and theorizing at your leisure—save that lyric sheet for a rainy day when the power goes out—and instead simply bask in the enveloping beauty of Sadier’s voice. Abandoning the post-rock and occasionally dissonant tendencies of Stereolab’s ’90s output, Sadier hasn’t exactly reinvented herself as a totally distinct solo artist, but she has crafted a simpler sonic persona: more romantic, more sensual, more inviting.
On “Find Me The Pulse Of The Universe” Sadier tackles trigonometry and metaphysics over a jangling guitar, a cafe-ready drumbeat and a rising piano but manages to give the heavy topics a light, conversational tilt, like she’s delivering a lecture while waiting in line for a film or buying groceries. Though the album showcases a few signature electro-pop flourishes—the trusty Moog, bits of static, the occasional bloop—most of the tracks sound as if they could’ve been beamed in from a pirate French radio station in the early ’70s. “Moi Sans Zach” is a stylish lily pad of song that lulls the listener into a sense of total tranquility, then just settles in with little variation. Sadier can be so good at creating a wispy, casual ambiance that she forgets to provide the necessary gusts of wind that make mood-based albums like this work.
It’s not surprising that in a recent interview Sadier mentioned John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” as an inspiration for the record. Like Lennon, Sadier is determined to pass politics through a personal lens, and her efforts to do so can come across as a little ham-fisted. “Auscultation To The Nation,” with its plodding lyrics about the G20, crumbling markets, government tyranny and the yearning for a real democracy, is a particularly dull low point. Stereolab’s occasional lyrical clunkers were easier to skate over because the music was so joyfully loopy and inventive, hopping from drone-heavy art-rock to trip-hop to bossa nova to tropicalia.
And yet, Silencio’s dreamy ballads can be transportive (“Lightning Thunderbolt”) and deceptively elegant (“Silent Spot”). “Next Time You See Me” finds Sadier once again taking flight via a soft “ba-ba-ba-ba” chorus and a surprisingly forceful guitar part that builds from a gentle strum to a fierce hum. “Better now to lie on the wood floor,” she sings, bringing the listener back to the surface of the Earth and away from geo-political anxieties that plague the record. But, if there’s one thing Renoir’s film teaches you, it’s that even small actions can have grave consequences. Sometimes lying on the wood floor or recording an album of pretty retro-pop songs is all you can do, and sometimes it’s enough.