“Post-punk” is a terrible term, really. It fails to refer to anything in terms of sound, and conveys that the genre is something that developed after the end of punk, regardless of the fact that Wire's Pink Flag -- an immensely important post-punk album by anyone's standards -- came out in 1977, that year so heavily associated with the rise of punk. Say “post-punk” to someone and it can be associated with anything from Interpol to At the Drive-In to Joy Division. Yet despite all that, Y is perhaps the strongest example of what post-punk is truly about.
If punk's initial concept was to take rock music and make something foreign and threatening of it, the Pop Group took that several steps further, and very close to its logical maximum. Where punk used rock's anger to open a space for alienated youth to express anger, the Pop Group transmuted rock into something wholly alien and nightmarish -- a scene from Heart of Darkness. Y is music for bizarre ceremonies: It evokes modern cannibals dancing around the cookpot where the collected values of Western civilisation stew. And yes, it is indeed as pretentious as that sounds.
However, Y succeeds at what it attempts to do: It takes the familiar aspects of rock and twists them into something rather different. Consider “She Is Beyond Good and Evil,” the opener and, to my ears, one of the most memorable songs ever recorded. Mark Stewart and his comrades take the basic concept of the love song and mutilate it beyond recognition. While retaining turns of phrase such as “She's the girl of our dreams,” they belt out such things as “Our only defence is together as an army / I hold you like a gun!” and assert that “Western values mean nothing to her.” It's a fair bet that a little more is being discussed than simply Stewart's love for a girl.
This, of course, is without even touching on what Y actually sounds like. That's actually quite hard to do. While saying something like “Y sounds like the concept of the Other given musical shape” sure sounds like a good topic for a senior thesis, it fails to tell the listener what to expect. That may be for the better, though; it is all but impossible to convey what to expect from Y. All sorts of remarks could be made about specific aspects of the sound, but comparisons to, say, the Talking Heads' messing with African rhythms or the Minutemen's funky but stilted basslines fail to encompass the bizarre cacophony that is Y. The basic framework of Y is a mess of different melodies and rhythms happening at once, with minimal links between them. While it is incredibly disorienting at times, it eventually resolves itself into a songwriting approach centred on texture, and is surprisingly tuneful once you understand what's going on. The most constant and noticeable features are the funky but often awkward-sounding basslines, stabbingly angular guitars and Mark Stewart's voice, which ranges from a funereal mutter to a tortured wail in a matter of seconds sometimes. Really, though, Y is something in its own category. It must be heard to give any concept of what it really sounds like.
Yet is Y actually that good of an album? Honestly, it's the sort of record that's incredibly vexing to rate. It's an extremely important achievement, a record which truly sounds like nothing else, and yet it has several major flaws. The largest of these is that it's simply inconsistent. While several of the songs are truly mind-blowing, others fall rather flat once the novelty of the Pop Group's approach wears off. If Y were an EP containing “She Is Beyond Good and Evil,” “Thief of Fire,” “Snowgirl,” “We Are Time” and “Don't Call Me Pain,” I would likely rate it a 9 or 10. But as is, half of the album is rather mediocre. The other important issue is that, honestly, Y can be very difficult to listen to. Especially the first few listens, it can truly be a chore to try to get what's going on. But the challenge Stewart and company present is well worth tackling.
Y presents a real experience, an outlook on music that can be found in few other places. If you can handle it, I highly recommend giving Y a few spins -- if only to broaden your horizons.