Being as it is that all of my knowledge of Matthew Herbert before receiving this disc in the mail was, at best, peripheral, it seems appropriate to begin this review, inured as it is to its own inevitable lacunae, by paying tribute to my own deficiency as a reviewer of “electronic” music. Fortunately, I do know that term, in serving as an umbrella against the inscrutableness of originality, covers an immensely diffuse array of musical endeavors, an entire spectrum unto itself, and one into which I dip now and again disaffected by the allegedly more “organic” sounds produced by various instruments which have in fact been manipulated by any number of production tactics to sound unique—that is, beyond what they would sound like were you sitting in the same room in which they were being played. All of that aside, in some ways Plat du Jour is easily approached, as its subject (food) and its content (manipulated sounds procured from food) are given.
In making the field recordings for the album, Herbert visited such locales as Scottish salmon farms, Cornish military museums, various chicken farms and a commercial hatchery, a chicken abattoir and the sewers beneath London, the final in order to record the audible remnants of human shit. Other sounds used are limited by his own stringently asserted set of ascetic guidelines, which begins with:
“1. The use of sounds that exist already is not allowed (subject to article 2) In particular; no drum machines. All keyboard sounds must be edited in some way: no factory presets.
“2. Only sounds that are generated at the start of the compositional process or taken from the artist’s own previously unused archive are available for sampling.”
The music that Herbert makes inside these limitations is hardly a reflection of the weight implied by the seriousness of his subject. For him, the act of eating one of political import and this album is an emotional response to the way responsibility for what one consumes is roundly rejected by many of those who do the consuming. But if one, while listening to Plat du Jour, suspends the knowledge of it as promulgation of righteous ideals, one is confronted with a playful work, one imbued with a childlike wonder and a frenetic sense of rhythm. This facetiousness, when taken in conjunction with the knowledge that this album is, in a very real sense, a direct representation of Herbert’s political sensibility with regard to food, induces a sort of carnival-like fascination in the listener, as if he is passing through a hall of deformities—which in this case happen to be the moral quandaries involved in, say, having a mimosa, a cup of coffee and a fried egg sandwich on a Sunday morning.
Susan Sontag once pointed out that the lavish use of irony is “the familiar outcome when a restless, somewhat disassociated intelligence struggles to cancel an irrepressible romanticism and tendency to moralize.” That Herbert is a romantic is evidenced, for instance, by a nascent determination to abstain from flying on, as he told The Guardian, “environmental grounds, which will cut 40% of my income.” Had he not ironically abstracted from the distinctness of such convictions, Plat du Jour would drown in an obesity of moral certitude, as does the track “Celebrity,” with lyrics too ingenuous to be either genuinely affecting or discomfitingly humorous. Such sentiments which, when expressed through the puerile language which dissent is so often couched in, feel inevitably, tediously jejune, and feel even more so when contrasted with their more discreet casting in songs such as An Empire of Coffee and The Final Meal of Stacey Lawton. And that dual nature—between seriousness and playfulness, the starkness of the materials and the effusiveness of the final form—makes Plat du Jour a prolifically ambiguous work. The knowledge of the foundation of the work and the actual experience of listening to it are indivisible in the end, and that indivisibility makes it something altogether strange, something altogether rare: a genuine fun and thought provoking work of art.
Matmos – A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure
Plaid – Not For Threes
Mouse on Mars – Niun Niggung