Every era gets the Ian Svenonius it deserves. We’ve obviously been overcomplicating things lately, because his current persona is relatively no-frills. Instead of piling up concepts and rhetoric and noise, this Svenonius is just packin’ some elegant sarcasm and a visual motif or two. The punk preacherman is on holiday; here comes the jaded guidance counselor in an orange suit.
And he’s great at his job. Music’s Not for Everyone, the second Chain & The Gang album, is as personable as Svenonius gets. He might never be an empath—the kids have made too many dumb choices to earn that from him—but he knows what everybody needs to hear: Get in touch with what you’re good at. Don’t trust the drugs. Relationships are essentially economic in nature. Rock and roll can be a fragile conceit. White privilege is enduring. Nobody is truly free.
Yeah, OK, Ian the commentator never completely disappears; the guys and girls in the band wear jail suits for any number of reasons. But if Music’s Not for Everyone has a meta-point, it’s that harangues have their limitations. That’s why the average Chain song is slapdash, unfussy, or skeletal compared to Svenonius projects of yore (consider Nation of Ulysses’ practiced chaos, The Make-Up’s propulsive posturing, and Weird War’s proto-professionalism). And if 2009’s transitional Down With Liberty... Up With Chains was a little too slapdash, this Music is surprisingly tuneful.
“Not Good Enough,” with its tumbling piano riff and teasing you-suck lyrics, is so fun that it gets a dub version later in the album. The guitars on “Detroit Music” have a credible amount of ’68 sizzle. The third-tier Brit Invasion slightness of “Can’t Get Away” matches the song’s lyrics about the inherent weaknesses of one’s social identity. And, the wedding-band quality of “Bill for the Use of a Body,” during which Svenonius notifies an ex-lover that “a small debt has been incurred for your wanton and often careless use of said item,” is just plain funny.
The music is secondary when the points are political. The primitive groove of “(I’ve Got) Privilege” takes a back seat to Svenonius’ race commentary. The shuffling “It’s a Hard, Hard Job (Keeping Everybody High),” about the inherently mundane nature of a medicated society, is an intentionally plain showtune. The droning title track is nothing but vocals, tambourines, and tape loops. “Does a moth know a flame just ‘cause it’s drawn to it?/Does a body know a bullet just because it got hit?” he asks, while echoey voices answer, “Music’s not for everybody.”
Although those songs amount to a series of jabs, nudges, and pokes, the album as a whole hardly qualifies as confrontational. The Svenonius of the moment has a secure core, but that solidity hasn’t dulled his art. If the shrieks and the glare return in full force, then it’s time to ask, “How have we changed?”