Joan Of Arc’s new album opens with three words that could just as easily serve as its tagline: “What the fuck?”
For the bulk of its career, the perpetually shifting Joan Of Arc has rarely, if ever, played things straight. Its first three albums remain the most accessible and traditionally indie-rock in its catalog, followed by soundtracks to theater pieces, lengthy instrumental works, and chopped-and-screwed Pro Tools experiments, all with a lineup just as prone to change. A cursory glance at the band’s discography shows just how much output it’s managed in its 20-plus-year existence, with Tim Kinsella always being the leader of these assorted wanderings.
Recorded at various locations throughout Chicago, He’s Got The Whole This Land Is Your Land In His Hands is the product of the band improvising hour-long jams then whittling them down to their most potent pieces. The result are songs that eschew verse-chorus constructions in favor of establishing a groove then meandering within its confines. Songs build off one idea and attempt to pack as much into them as possible, with instruments fluttering in and out as Kinsella adopts a vocal delivery that skews closer to spoken word than singing. Similarly, recent addition Melina Ausikaitis often plays the role of the band’s Flavor Flav, throwing in punchlines during Kinsella’s verses and backing him up in makeshift choruses.
The result of all this experimentation is a record that finds equal value in drawing a listener in while also pushing them away. A song like “New Wave Hippies” takes a solid drum-and-bass groove only to have Kinsella drop lines like “I know how the nicest guy in ISIS feels” and imitating Q*bert sound effects shortly thereafter. It’s sections like this that highlight the difficulty of engaging with a Joan Of Arc album, as the band slips between transcendence and self-indulgence so effortlessly it’s hard to know which one is intended.
To that end, He’s Got The Whole doesn’t sound like anything else in Joan Of Arc’s catalog, becoming uncompromisingly singular in its scope. And while that’s rewarding—these songs would never be mistaken for any other band—by that same token, it’s often so obtuse it feels like it’s not meant for anyone but its creators. The album achieves its goal of being a grand, sonic experiment that spits in the face of convention while serving as a dissertation on living in Chicago. Even when it isn’t particularly enjoyable, it still warrants respect for committing to its premise and not compromising on its ideals. And that all speaks to the elemental truth of Joan Of Arc: Even at its worst, it’s anything but average.
Purchase He’s Got The Whole This Land Is Your Land In His Hands here, which helps support The A.V. Club.