You Don't Know The Size of My Heart - UNKLE's Psyence Fiction turns 20
I can see why an album like Psyence Fiction, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, is something that could be easily maligned, or described as polarizing. The sparse Wikipedia entry for the album, released in August of 1998, shows that Spin gave it an 8 out of 10, Rolling Stone gave it an unheard of four and a half stars out of five, and Pitchfork, a website still practically in its infancy, gave it a 9.8—though, following the corporate buyout and re-launch of the site, the Psyence Fiction review has been scrubbed away completely, but since the internet is forever, you can read it here.
In that Pitchfork review, the album was called a ‘genius piece of electronic music history,’ and a ‘remarkable pop album’ in its original review—however, in 2003, when UNKLE returned, minus DJ Shadow, the project’s sophomore effort, Never, Never Land, was greeted with less than welcoming ears, and Psyence Fiction was referred to, in retrospect, as ‘over-cooked, half-baked, and underdone, all at the same time,’ among other things—none of them positive.
The result of a collaboration between DJ Shadow and his then-label head, producer James Lavelle, UNKLE’s debut album, Psyence Fiction, is an amalgamation of marquee names contributing vocals over music from Shadow—who, still riding a victory lap from his stunning Endtroducing…, steps out from the break beat turntablism he was known for, and allowed the music to wander into trip hop, as well as ramshackle guitar driven rock, and saccharine Brit Pop.
Though, 20 years after the fact, Psyence Fiction may just always be remembered as the album that gave us the startling and gorgeous “Rabbit in Your Headlights,” the slow burning, ominous collaboration between DJ Shadow and Thom Yorke.
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In the liner notes to the 10th anniversary reissue of Endtroducing…, Shadow writes, “I owe my career to (Lavelle), a fact he knows all too well…and I hope he can find some comfort in what we accomplished together, despite all of the heartbreak that followed.”
I won’t go so far as to surmise that Psyence Fiction was what caused the end of their working relationship and friendship, and it’s hard to research what, exactly, when wrong—an old article from The Guardian suggests that Shadow distanced himself from the UNKLE project shortly after the album was released, leaving Lavelle to defend its credibility. Lavelle also, apparently, made some kind of awful deal with A&M Records, which eventually took away his creative control.
By 2001, Lavelle was already at work on Never, Never Land, and was quoted in an interview saying that DJ Shadow was not involved in the project, and by 2002, Shadow himself had jumped ship from the Mo’ Wax name, and released his long gestating sophomore album, The Private Press, via Island/MCA.
Both artists have continued to release efforts in the two decades that have followed—all of which have been of diminishing returns, leading one to argue that DJ Shadow peaked right out of the gate, and that Psyence Fiction, despite all its flaws, was the tail end of that audacious early success.
Like Endtroducing…, Psyence Fiction is cumbersomely structured around a loose conceit of a disastrous mission in outer space—using the line, “Somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now,” ripped from the original trailer to Star Wars, before the opening track, “Gun Blazing,” kicks in with its out of control percussive sampling, frenetic and breathless rapping from Kool G Rap, and distressed radio communication about losing contact with U.N.K.L.E. It’s an idea that, thankfully, Shadow and Lavelle are inconsistent with throughout the album.
Psyence Fiction is not perfect, or flawless album—I don’t think it ever claims to be, though I think there was quite a bit of pomp surrounding its release, at least in the U.K—so maybe some saw it as some kind of colossal disappointment. Though if you can sift among its unevenness and imperfections, alongside its crown jewel (“Rabbit in Your Headlights”) there is a lot of excellent material found within.
There was a relatively recent interview with Lavelle that I skimmed through while trying to prepare for this piece that mentions Mo’ Wax, at one point, had the opportunity to sign Portishead, and didn’t—so I guess it’s fitting that one of the first standouts on Psyence Fiction is what could be looked at as ‘the poorman’s Portishead,’ “Bloodstain,” featuring lyrics and vocals by Alice Temple.
Temple, a one time BMX champion, as well as singer and songwriter, contributes the creeping, alluring vocals to the claustrophobic, skittering track—structured around a number of chopped up funk samples and a heavy interpolation of CeCe K’Roche’s “Alone,” “Bloodstain”’s lyrics are both obvious enough—it’s more than likely about heroin—but mysterious enough to leave a minor sense of ambiguity covering them.
Still a household name (at least in the U.K for sure) following the massive success of Urban Hymns, The Verve’s vocalist Richard Ashcroft’s makes a memorable appearance on what is, without a doubt, the album’s most theatrical, or at least, dramatic, track—the sprawling, saccharine “Lonely Soul.” While it’s nine minute running time is, you know, a tad bit on the long side—especially since a bulk of that is just primarily the song’s gorgeous string arrangement, it’s still an impressive track, layering Shadow’s percussive manipulation and rhythm with the grandeur of the orchestral addition, and Ashcroft’s iconic voice; sure, the lyrics aren’t exactly amazing—e.g. “I believe there’s a time and a place to let your mind drift and get out of this place,” but Ashcroft pulls whatever emotion he can out of it (he wrote the words, after all) and sells it.
Badly Drawn Boy, despite having contributed the soundtrack to the 2002 film adaptation of About A Boy, may not really be a household name in the United States; and at the time of his contribution to Psyence Fiction, Damon Gough only had a handful of EPs to his name—his first full length album wouldn’t arrive until 2000. Gough delivers vocals to the noisy, frenzied “Nursery Rhyme,” a song that doesn’t so much seem out of place among the rest of the album, but it’s anchored by live percussion and huge, distorted guitar riffs—not sure where any of those came from; the ‘music’ is simply credited to DJ Shadow in the liner notes. However out of place it may sound among the rest of the album, it is one of the finer moments here, if not simply for its bombastic sonic landscape.
Among the album’s 11 tracks (12 if you count the ‘mandatory’ outro), I stop short of saying there are more misses than hits, but there are a number of less successful tracks—and some that are just plain awful.
Given DJ Shadow’s background in break beats and turntablism, as well as his overall affinity for hip-hop, you’d think that any rap-based contribution to Psyence Fiction would be stellar; however, that is not the case. Here, yes, you get the breathless, unrelenting rapping of Kool G Rap on “Guns Blazing,” but the lyrics are insipid at best, and Kool G’s rhyme scheme, at least in the opening verse, is pretty lazy overall.
Later, on “The Knock,” we’re graced with the presence of Mike D from The Beastie Boys, who, rather than bothering to come up with something original, opts to spit what is almost an identical copy, at least in cadence, to the Beastie’s song “Intergalactic,” released a month prior to this album.
The two instrumental tracks, “Unreal,” and “Celestial Annihilation,” are not among the awful, but aren’t exactly the most successful. “Unreal”’s hazy, borderline psychedelic sounds seem to fit a little better not so much with the album as a whole, but rather, where this track is sandwiched in the running. It is technically, not a true instrumental track because there are lyrics posted for it on Genius, though they are delivered through such reverb, they kind of take a backseat to the song’s overall aesthetic.
The late arriving “Celestial Chaos” is more akin with a skittering, electro-funk infused nod to late 1970 and early 1980s hip-hop beats—it’s not bad, but it’s placed after the dissonant and energetic “Nursery Rhyme,” and before the forgettable rapping over rock (but not rap-rock) of “The Knock,” so it seems like it would have fit better elsewhere—or maybe saved as a DJ Shadow solo track.
Possibly the most out of place inclusion on Psyence Fiction, as well as a complete momentum killer as the album heads towards its inevitable conclusion, is “Chaos,” a quietly strummed acoustic song—barely rising above a whisper, truthfuly—featuring minimal, if any, flourishes from Shadow, and serves as a vehicle for vocal contributions from idiosyncratic French singer Atlantique Khan. Again, much like the track that arrives before it (talk about a stark/confusing juxtaposition of songs and tones), “Chaos” isn’t bad—it’s got a catchy melody, it’s just slow as shit, and would be perfectly fine, on its own, or even structured elsewhere in the record, like the first half.
Arriving before what is referred to as the ‘mandatory’ “Outro” to the album—where Shadow and Lavelle bring back the loose space traveling theme—is the composition that Psyence Fiction will be remembered for; it’s probably what it is best known for now, 20 years later. It’s the reason that I bought a used copy of the CD on a cold, February day in the year 2000.
“Rabbit in Your Headlights” deserves all the hyperbole that has been piled upon it over the last two decades—it’s an impressive collaboration between Shadow’s smart production, and Thom Yorke’s soaring and moody vocals. Revolving around an ominous, somber piano sample, the duo continue to work to build the tension until the ultimate release as the song explodes in cacophony with Yorke’s caterwauling—more paranoid and anguished than on, say, “Climbing Up The Walls,” and Shadow’s cut up beats skittering with precision and bombast in every direction as the song basically collapses inward on itself.
The thing about “Rabbit In Your Headlights” is that, yes, it works as a stand along song, but while the album is remembered for the inclusion of this song, the song is remembered for the accompanying music video.
Directed by video auteur Jonathan Glazer, who would go on to direct films “Sexy Beast” and “Under The Skin,” as well as infamous clips for Radiohead and Massive Attack, the video follows a man walking through a tunnel, repeatedly harassed by passing motorists and hit by a number of them as they whiz by him until the song’s unstable conclusion, when this man juts out his arms in a ‘Jesus Christ pose,’ and a car, rather than hitting him, explodes in a fury behind him, like it just slammed head first into a brick wall.
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Two decades later, Psyence Fiction finds itself in a place that is in between—it’s not a horrible listen, but it’s also not amazing; there are parts that always worked, and were enjoyable or impressive, and there are parts of it that are always going to miss the mark. It hasn’t aged poorly, but it also hasn’t aged gracefully either. A majority of this record serves as a time capsule, or portrait, of the time it was created.
Psyence Fiction is the sound of two longtime friends who have found themselves, after a long time toiling, in a position of success, but are now testing that relationship. The album is a soundtrack of tension and strain, anchored by big name performers brought into impressive with their contributions. It’s all supposed to look and sound effortless; but it’s anything but.
There was talk, as far back as five or six years ago, of Lavelle putting together a deluxe reissue of Psyence Fiction, including rarities or unreleased material in it; the funds to assemble it, among other Mo’ Wax related things, were gathered through a Kickstarter campaign that exceeded its goal, but it seems like nothing has really happened since the money was raised.
There has been a lot of confusion on what Lavelle did with the money raised, and if Shadow was involved in any of this (it seems like he wasn’t)—a five year old interviewed claimed the two had ‘been talking’ again about Psyence Fiction—though the results of that conversation remain to be seen.
While Endtroducing…, truly what you could call a ‘genius piece’ of electronic music history, was reissued once on compact disc in 2005, serving as the ‘10th anniversary edition,’ featuring an additional disc of alternate mixes, as well as being reissued and remastered in 2016 for the 20th anniversary, Psyence Fiction has not been shown as much love—simply repressed on vinyl in 2003; the sound quality is fine, the packaging leaves much to be desired (as does the early 2000s vinyl represses of Endtroducing…), and the way the album is sequenced across four sides makes little to no sense—especially given the fact that there are songs connected by segues as one fades into the other.
Is Psyence Fiction a ‘genius piece of electronic music history’? I don’t know if I’d go that far. I’d say “Rabbit In Your Headlights” is one of the most haunting, captivating songs I’ve heard in the last 25 years; and the album as a whole is a piece of electronic music history never the less—and much like the individuals who made it—it’s flawed, but easy to look beyond to find the rough or undeveloped charm inside.