Cars were unsafe at any speed, and houses used to settle. Baseball was the thing that happened in the sun; the names etched into products were an enduring reassurance, bigger than Presidents. So, see: you can’t trust memory. All hewed to the texture of some collected knowledge, the big lies remain very much the same. But we, the creatures, with the sliest of shit-eating grins, are only slightly more (or less?) aware.
Three members now unfortunately deceased, Negativland enter the fourth decade of their existence this year. And so, here, ostensibly, comes a moment for unquiet reflection. But the Bay Area collective has never really been good at performing for ego’s sake, at least not without an Olympic buccal bulge. Like a museum of cultural detritus, they’ve never mistaken casual introspection for profundity.
Negativland have always been about an idea and, like the culture war cycle — itself a primary ammunition for the band’s high-caliber brand of subversive nosism — the idea has hardly died down. Between unpainted intervals, True False, Negativland’s latest, presents some of the band’s most potent, musical, and “popular” ideas in, I think, years.
So, where were we? Let’s see. Garbage, media, mass psychogenic illness… Among others, these themes have, over the years, threaded a neat motif through all of Negativland’s self-styled hideous triptychs. And so the band remains primarily concerned with the relationships people share with systems, as well as the means through which those relationships are expressed.
But what does it mean to be true? That question’s over my pay grade, but True False poses the question and invents a brilliant subversion of logic in response; “I don’t have a single American friend,” etc. So dedicated to freedom of misinformation — resolving opposites in some simple inverse amendment — True False attempts to expose false dichotomies. It mostly succeeds. It also feels like it’s speaking to me personally. (To be fair, it does open with an address to one “David,” perhaps a self-effacing reference to the late Weatherman, or maybe the Brom murders?)
In any case, “Discernment,” a mainstay of live sets for two decades, finally shows up here in studio format, reflecting a synthesis of pure maths. But, as we’re told toward the end: “Yesterday Hates Today;” and it could just as easily be the other way around. So True False isn’t at all like a clip show sketch, in form or in function. Instead, it feels mostly considered, genuine, and current. While the band has always risen to occasions of self-reference, these moments never descend into the languor of self-congratulation. And will you at least consider the sky’s burning algebra? Negativland were children of the radio era, and under a different sun, this album might be a solemn retread.
But True False is thankfully imbued with contemporary textures and references that ultimately reflect the newer issues. We hear the spliced phantasms of Ras Baraka and Barack Obama populated on the same track, “This is Not Normal,” in which the titular statement repeats, as if some perverse and obvious mantra for our times. A critical study of “normalcy” in general, the track manages to slyly avoid roasted fingers and bothesideism. Other entries, like “Melt the North Pole” and “Certain Men,” respectively touch upon climate change and the structural violence of male authority. Both are performed with equal humor and humility. There is also a song about bees.
The record’s climax arguably comes with “Fourth of July,” a searing and hilarious critique of internet slacktivism, outrage porn, and 21st-century right-wing entitlement. “I can make 15 fucking posts on Facebook, and not fucking one of you will share it!” an anonymous MAGA-inflected voice seethes, churchy organs a-whirring in the background. More prone to an obscurantist kind of dehydrated wit, Negativland’s “Fourth of July” stands out as one of the album’s truly laugh-out-loud moments.
And so, like some of the band’s best work, True False scans like a rapid-fire series of in-jokes. If you’re a fan, you’ll like it. If not, hard cheese. Regardless, the album is an often impressive, frequently funny interrogation of our thrownness. It’s like a flippant middle-finger aimed into the abyss of our past’s familiar matrix. Diffuse in nature, its obfuscation of character and argument seems to gesture, as is expected, at a kind of widespread dissociation, not to mention a generalized ignorance and complacency. Negativland have always set their sights on the deceptively anodyne, the “mostly harmless,” the suburban. But in lieu of headline thoughts or broad strokes, True False boldly attempts to address several questions at once, hopefully (or maybe hopelessly?) suggesting more than just a binary answer.