Jam City - Dream A Garden
“The celestial Empire will come crashing down over your head! Everything on this Earth, everything made of flesh is shit, and should be treated as such. Paranoid withdrawal, a return to the roots of naturing nature, total dissent on the part of the order of ambient significations…the dice are cast, there will be much more where this came from…”
– Felix Guattarri, “On the Question of ‘Primordial Bureaucratic States’”
Would it hurt too many feelings to call Punk ideology the central Anglo-American ideology? When restricted to contemporary discourse, I’d even argue that most dominant narratives, especially within music, are entrapped in its sweet legacy. If we were to relegate the entire culture of punk into the more manageable “DIY,” it’s easy to see its use of classic British-American individualism as taken up in opposition to capitalism; doing-it-yourself seeks to swap out the assumed solitary pursuit of capital for the pursuit of personal accountability, personal identity, and often enough, sadly, personal escape, personal schizophrenia, personal surreality, and personal failed dreams.
But “DIY” seems a bit redundant when applied to dreams; after all, in order to avoid a complete existential breakdown at the hands of an unknown metaphysics, we are hopefully “doing them ourselves.” The dream of DIY approaches the idea of resistance by combining the idea of individuality with collective action that is tied up in webs of assumed sign exchange — something about love, plywood, power chords, synthesizers, the color red, YouTube, and Virginia Astley (to name a handful).
It’s important to consider Jam City’s act of “Dreaming a Garden” as an act of uncomfortable self-protection tied to a perceived sense of “individuality” emanating from punk ideology, as well as an adoption of a network of ambient signifiers associated with post-punk’s “artification” of punk’s protest agenda. Like post-punk, Dream a Garden is contextualized within the complications of resistance as it relates to the completely insane notion that you can protect yourself from the overwhelming force of capital through music. Jam City is dreaming a vision of escape associated with the artistic, schizoid act of adapting his masterful design process into a narrative that involves (questionable) ethics: his garden is creatively privatized, only accessible through loose sign exchange symbolizing universal love and protest. Realistically, the process of releasing an album in a manner situated within the very process it critiques parallels the act of wearing a bleached-white denim coat with “CLASS WAR” emblazoned on it — an action coded within extremely problematic ideas of contemporary protest. Since it’s 2015, not 1977, it’s nice to see Jam City re-introducing sentiments of musical solidarity into our generational voice, where “everyone knows that we’re fucked.” But do we have anything more than a perceived solidarity, a vapid ethics, between people who listen to similar music and feel alienated by the culture we live in? I can’t help but think that, despite his plea for positive solidarity, Jam City’s argument for “dreaming a garden” is just emphasizing that some have the ability to leisure in a work state.
I’m not trying to put Jam City on blast for feeling the often unshakable need to express our alienated condition, and I wouldn’t feel the need to address any of these concerns if it weren’t for the oppressively mishandled “statement” provided on the front-end of experiencing the record. At the end of the day, Dream a Garden is a cool record that should make you feel hopeful, positive, and ultimately good. Yet, the entirety of our contemporary political discourse has involved attempting to deconstruct, justify, or challenge our capitalist system. As such, it’s difficult to know what to do because it’s still here and we’re all still squabbling about it. In this sense, I appreciate Jam City’s insistence that “they want us to be sad, they want us to be selfish, they want us to be unhappy.” If that’s the case though, why dream a garden? The very notion calls to mind that facile Voltaire idea of rejecting Leibnitzian metaphysical optimism in favor of “cultivating your own garden.” Instead, if we’re going to dream anything, shouldn’t we be dreaming more than a garden? Should we be dreaming something truly insane?
To bring this back a bit to the critique of capitalist society as a schizo-culture, Guattari states that “the real question is whether a production of desire, a dream, a passion, a concrete Utopia, will finally acquire the same existential dignity in social life as the manufacturing of cars or fads.” It’s easy to see how Jam City’s struggle plays into the duality; aware of the occasional naiveté of straight-ahead punk, Dream a Garden seeks to embrace the normality of resistance as a representation of discomfort within the loaded continuum of UK bass that Jam City epitomized with Classical Curves. Often described as “conceptual,” Classical Curves was an album definitive in its masterful use of image within dance music, the fetishization of the manufacturable experience, of fads. It was massively influential in emphasizing how club was an effective means for quick sign exchange that allowed for an ease of clarity, broken away from human voice, embodiment, physical instrumental presence. It sought to demonstrate the relationships between images swiftly and beautifully by allowing the listener to meditate upon its content easily, if not absent-mindedly. For the most part, this technique has a direct relationship to some of the best marketing and design strategies, and it shows how easily our attention is grasped by the shiny and the beautiful. In this sense, the politics surrounding Dream a Garden are difficult because our world without its manufactured shininess can sometimes be a hard thing to stomach.
That’s not to say the album itself is difficult to stomach. It’s actually a relatively easy and enjoyable listen. There are disenfranchised individuals living across the dregs of the world, representing identities other than the white male producer, who pour their sorrows out illegibly into shitty microphones — black, queer, women, or trans artists spilling burnt-out, scuzzed frequencies that blare from hoarse throats on street corners. If we really want to talk about alienation, plenty of people aren’t dreaming of gardens, but about buying shiny, candy-apple Stratocasters that can help them lean on the fundamental musical force of protest music to battle against internalized oppression — oppression that feels like the stinging cold, not bored office blues. Without turning this into a conversation about privilege or appropriation or even how shitty and mundane everyone’s lives can be, I want to acknowledge that I appreciate Jam City’s efforts to offer a vision of escape, no matter how simple.
Ultimately, Jam City’s message is a positive one. The actual music Dream a Garden is offering, separate from all the pomp of its press releases and strained interviews, are beautiful requiems for our lost sense of love toward shallow brand loyalty; they return to our inclinations for warmth, solidarity, and friendship. Regardless of how problematic its adolescent impulses can be, the record bumps with a sonic palette not unlike the murky synth funk explored by Night Slugs boss Bok Bok on Your Charismatic Self. It’s decadent use of phaser, guitar bends, washes, stabs, and scrapes call to mind Prefab Sprout, not in the manner of production-perfect Steve McQueen, but more like Sprout’s demo-like, similarly minded Protest Songs. Jack Latham’s voice floats above a racket of grating textures that are contrasted with uplifting, sentimental synthesizer and guitar texture. “The Garden Thrives” serves as a triumphant opening; it couples phased and destroyed noise with a plucky melody that epitomizes Dream a Garden at its best: jaunty and introspective, with careful attention paid to some aesetheticized music history.
“Unhappy” and “Today” could easily serve as anthemic tracks for the post-club. They aren’t totally reinventing the shiny tendencies of high-club aesthetics; we’re instead given smirk-laden fist-pumping, normcore (in the “finding liberation in being nothing special” sense) jams that I genuinely love. These moments are paced between ambient passages like “Good Lads, Bad Lads” or “Damage,” nice meditations that further emphasize the overall listenability of the record. As a whole, it’s pleasant and occasionally, with a certain amount of sacrifice, inspirational.
But what of Guattari’s Schizoanalysis? Not to position him too authoritatively on the matter, although he did devote his entire intellectual life to critiquing capitalism and schizoanalyzing dreams (both of which Jam City seems to have taken up with this record), he states in his Chaosophy that: “the problem of the revolutionary movement is the problem of madness, [and] the problem of madness is the problem of artistic creation.” Given the album’s simultaneous decay and optimism, I hear much madness in Jam City’s latest. The madness emanates from the desire to create beauty in an otherwise trashed, disenfranchised reality. The madness is in the effort to instill a revolutionary struggle not tied to social production or even tied to the idea of labor in general, but attached to visions of private gardens locked away in the beautiful minds of our most sensitive dreamers.