Album Review: Tobacco – Hot Wet & Sassy

[Ghostly International; 2020]

The past decade has been one of the most interesting eras for esoteric DIY culture we’ve ever seen. With high speed internet allowing for new communication and marketing tools, and a price drop in gear that permits creation of professionally-engineered music in bedrooms, there’s been an influx of genuinely wyrd sounds and styles. What was once contained in underground circles and dubbed as ‘outsider music’ – and would only slowly trickle into the mainstream via subversive figures – can now reach immediate reception of broader audiences. The outer realms no longer exist. That’s good, but it has also led to an uncomfortable status for fringe artists of the 2000s. Some were readily admitted with iconic status, like Ariel Pink. Others, sadly, remained more obscure.

Tobacco occupies that odd space between obscurity and foreign familiarity. Pretty much the driving force behind Black Moth Super Rainbow, he’s been on the cultural radar ever since their 2007 album Dandelion Gum, expanding his signature sound of library music synths and 90s Slacker melodies with each additional release. Combining hauntological pop urges with his interests in wonky led Tobacco to some very weird places, including last year’s collaborative project with Aesop Rock, Malibu Ken, yet the big breakthrough that some of his contemporaries stumbled into seems to still evade him. Sure, he composed the theme song of HBO’s Silicon Valley, but ask any random club attendee about Tobacco and they’re more likely to hand you a self-rolled cigarette than expand on the merits of Maniac Meat.

So it did raise some eyebrows when Hot Wet & Sassy listed a collaborative track with Trent Reznor, a much odder collaborator than Aesop or – a few years earlier – Beck. The implication of a new, harsher angle to the old Tobacco seemed possible, yet unlikely. Would 2020 really see Tobacco go industrial and refashion his musical ideas into harsh experimentation? The answer remains: no.

On the contrary, Hot Wet & Sassy actually might be Tobacco’s most accessible effort at a pop album to date. While yes, the Trent Reznor-featuring “Babysitter” is a little more abrasive for the artist, pretty much every other song here aims at providing as many hooks in three minutes as possible, transcending all conceivable genre barriers. What is interesting is that some of the songwriting, such as on “Body Double”, “Stabbed by a Knight” or “Motherfuckers 64”, indeed resembles NIN. It suggests a parallel universe where Trent Reznor comes across a heavily heat-warped tape of some obscure 90s demos, mixed with favourites he recorded off the radio, that is the album’s siamese twin. In another galaxy, this is the music Cyborgs enjoy.

As soon as the dystopian videogame synth-line of “Centaur Skin” kicks in, it’s clear that this isn’t just ‘another’ Tobacco release. There’s shades of Prince here (“Pit”), of dance music, of rock and even bubblegum pop (“Jinmenken”). “Headless to Headless” has more in common with grunge than anything the artist has done before, while the plastic-soulful “ASS-TO-TRUTH” is reminiscent of 2000s Air. The fun Tobacco had in reassembling genre structures communicates itself to the listener thanks to how playful the variety in instrumentation remains throughout – trippy videogame themes can alternate with heavy guitar distortion, cross over to synth-pop and incorporate mallsoft-like interludes. 

It’s impossible to talk about Tobacco without mentioning hauntology. And indeed, his newest album succeeds in summoning a nostalgia for an inexistent period that married the grunge era to 70s Moog experimentation. There’s been a few releases from the early 90s that attempted to achieve something akin to its chaotic energy – like Paul Leary’s guitar-heavy The History Of Dogs and of course Beck’s Mellow Gold – but none of those committed to the aesthetics of library music, leaving Boards of Canada’s The Campfire Headphase as the most immediate comparison point (the quiet instrumental “Poisonous Horses” comes to mind). But then there’s songs like “Mythemim”, which resembles a lost Radiohead track from the Amnesiac era, and could even be construed as an Aphex Twin homage.

While Tobacco has never had any bad releases, it has to be said that his unique sound has the potential of limiting accessibility. There will be quite a few familiar with Tobacco who might dismiss Hot Wet & Sassy on the basis that its audio-aesthetics are mostly in line with what’s to be expected from the artist. But that would be an incredible mistake, as the album features some of his best material ever since Black Moth Super Rainbow’s 2012 album Cobra Juicy. Now that Adult Swim has proven to be the Zoomer equivalent of MTV and introduced hauntology and library music as consumable aesthetic, Tobacco’s music of the past feels prescient, while his latest release feels ahead of its time.