This Record's No Good No More: Fatboy Slim – Better Living through Chemistry

This Record’s No Good No More – a subsidiary of Crate-Digging, Inc. A periodic column where I turn a critical eye on records I liked once, but now find hard to get excited about.

(Astralwerks, 1996)

I imagine one with an artifact like Fatboy Slim’s Better Living through Chemistry owns that piece of plastic – or vinyl, or nebulous electronic file – for a reason other than enjoying the music on it in a personal setting. Because, as I’ve found out, that’s impossible – you can’t enjoy this music on a personal level. And for some reason, I’ve been stuck with a copy of this. How long that will last is yet to be determined. But there’s got to be some sort of social criteria existent in order for an album like this to have gained a modicum of popularity, and to have served as a springboard for other likeminded musicians. I’m trying to fathom what those criteria are.

I’ll stop there for the moment. Better Living through Chemistry was Norman Cook’s first real foray into popular consciousness as Fatboy Slim. Released during the halcyon days of MTV’s Big Beat push (I won’t bore you with a recap of my AMP-watching days or my then-newfound interest in electronic music), lead single “Going Out of My Head” received some airplay, and indeed sounded like what could pass as a hit single for the electronica crowd. Its hook was a nifty sample lifted from The Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” and the repetition of a female singer exclaiming “I’m going out of my head” seemed to be perfect for the ubiquitous teenybopper Party to Go or Road Rules or MTV Spring Break underage drinking/date rapeathons that obviously raked in advertising dollars. It’s meatheaded music for meatheaded masses. Strangely enough, nothing seems to have changed since then.

You can probably tell what I think about the whole scene, and Fatboy’s place in it. He’s the bar band of electronica artists. In fact, it’s hard for me to type “electronica artist” here with a straight face, as any mook with a sampler and a taste for lager (or meth) could probably approximate half the tunes here. See, Cook doesn’t really build meaningful structures out of his tracks, nor does he traffic in subtlety – he finds a hook (great!), wedges in a sample (neato!), ratchets up the four-on-the-floor beats (groovy!), and presto! Instant electronica. It’s Easy Mac for your ears – there isn’t even much variation on when the breakdown’s going to come – you can see it from a mile away.

And yet I still have some sort of remote soft spot for “Going Out of My Head,” in the same way I still have a soft spot for all the somewhat original material that gets drawn out to exhausting cliché. It’s not a bad song really, it’s just that everything that follows it is so lazy. And why shouldn’t it be? People buy it, Cook hangs out on Ibiza with a cocktail in hand, DJs every couple of nights, and makes boatloads of cash. I think that maybe I hate him more for that than anything. I want those cocktails. I want boatloads of cash. I want to DJ on Ib… wait, OK, not that last part, but you get the picture. But the song is undeniably fun – it’s just that it set such a bad precedent.

The rest is electronica-as-a-genre’s equivalent of verse-chorus-verse: no subtlety, no shift. “First Down,” buried all the way at track 8, has the decency to branch out in some way, exposing a few more layers and differences in structure than the rest of the collection can boast. But that’s it – nothing else is more than a waste of your time.

After this album, Cook went on to have an obviously successful career soundtracking used car commercials. Did you hear? KIA is having a factory retail blowout on all 2011 Optimas! Everything must go! “Right Here, Right Now!” Yes, that song, it’s playing over the earnest pitchman! Go go! Oh, that’s a Fatboy Slim song? If you love money, and I know you do, you’ll go download that tune right away to pump you up anytime you need that extra boost before signing the papers on the next home foreclosure. Flip that sucker! God it’s good to buy and sell!

I have truly used up my soapbox cynicism quotient today, and I’m not even focusing on this album anymore. (And don’t you hate Christopher Walken, just a little bit, for making the “Weapon of Choice” video entertaining, thereby masking the fact that “Weapon of Choice” is not a particularly interesting nor original song?) So now it’s probably a good time to stop. And why am I directing this vitriol so adamantly at Norman Cook? He just wants to make music and party, right? Well good for him. Good for everybody. You know what, screw it. I feel stupid just expending energy writing this review. Never mind. Don’t read it.

RIYL: a mouthful of garbage, sand in your eyes, a bumblebee enema

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2 responses to “This Record's No Good No More: Fatboy Slim – Better Living through Chemistry

  1. Ha. “A bumblebee enema.” I’ll have to remember that one. Yeah … Fatboy Slim is pretty much junk food. It’s delicious because it’s full of yummy addictive additives but — in the end — winds up making you fat and lazy if you eat too much of it.

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  2. i’d hesitate to refer to it as “delicious” – certainly the calories are truly empty. i know i’m really treading too snobbish a path with my biases here, but i’m pretty against this sort of fluff, and it annoys me more and more that i once entertained it. do you even realize that’s fatboy slim on car commercials? it doesn’t even register with me. it’s like they got some local musician to throw something together for their end of year factory blowout. i equate fatboy slim with car sales and mtv party to go. screw him.

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