All Ian Bavitz ever wanted was to pick apart the day and put it back together his way. Aesop Rock‘s take on hip-hop could best be described as `destructive creation,’ an aesthetic experience lined with death and detritus, but triumphant in spite of it. Where Aesop’s one-time Definitive Jux labelmate (and head) El-P had his own sardonically aggressive stance, and Cannibal Ox a nihilistic sensibility, Aes paired his dark, paranoiac visions with cool detachment and superhuman linguistic ability. The dude once claimed to have died 1,000 deaths, threatened to leave a lawn spangled with epitaphs, foretold denial of entry at the Pearly Gates and even wrote an elegy for Pluto, which suffered the indignity of having its planet status revoked.
If death has always been lurking around the corners on Aesop’s previous albums, on sixth effort Skelethon, he stares it right in the face. It’s actually called Skelethon, for one, and its cartoon cover art depicts a cat’s reanimated bones. Much like El-P, who released his own album after a five-year wait earlier this year, Aesop Rock underwent a period of things falling apart — his label closed, his marriage ended, and close friend Camu Tao died of cancer. As the New York emcee said in a recent interview, “everything around me was dying: people, relationships, all plant life in my apartment; you name it — it’s dead.”
Unavoidable as it may have been for this sequence of events to leave an impact on Aesop Rock’s music, the mood on Skelethon is neither mournful nor angry. Biting, neurotic and darkly humorous? Absolutely, but then again that’s Aesop Rock’s specialty. But don’t mistake this for a New Orleans funeral — think of it more like a party at ground zero, one man just barely keeping his cool while the world around him crumbles, set to his own mesmerizingly rich production. From the lush, layered beats of leadoff track “Leisureforce,” Aesop takes inventory of a “pet cemetery in electric fresco” and “undead orcs pulling oars through the algae.” And in the second verse, his own sense of isolationism switches him from introvert to creepy loner: “Take apart a vcr/ Ringer off, canned peas, cabin fever mi amor/ Patently adhering to the chandelier at key-in-door.”
Over the course of the next hour, Aesop Rock details how to make a “Homemade Mummy” (“Get a corpse, get gauze, get comfy“), explores mortality through haircuts on “Racing Stripes” (key chant: “Dude it grows back!“), and ultimately confesses his sins on the darkly churning final track “Gopher Guts”: “I have been completely unable to maintain any semblance of relationship on any level/ I have been a bastard to the people who have actively attempted to deliver me from peril.” The greatest and most inspiring takeaway from Skelethon comes with single “ZZZ Top,” however, a characteristically smart-assed celebration of Zeppelin (ZoSo), Afrika Baambaataa (Zulu) and punk rock (Zeroes), with righteous guitar loops and a clear-eyed statement of purpose: “When they ask how you, feeling you, tell em you, feeling like, something important died screaming/ you, tell em you, feeling like, something even more important arrived breathing.” Aesop Rock, the optimist? Probably not, but Bavitz has come out of a personal funk stronger and more focused, and has channeled that into another rock solid entry in an already incredible catalog.
Stream: Aesop Rock – “ZZZ Top”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.