You think you don’t know this guy, but you do. Here’s a hint: Watch a Gorillaz video and focus on the fat dude. That’s Dan “the Automator” Nakamura, the seldom-seen producer behind the animated supergroup. But don’t be fooled by appearances – the cartoon caricature doesn’t give any hint of the Automaton’s artistic subtlety, and neither does his sleazy bachelor persona Nathaniel Merriweather, seen on the cover of his most recent effort, Lovage: Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By.
In Lovage, the Automator accomplishes something admirable: he has found the middle ground where humor and beautiful music meet and shoot the breeze. It’s an odd conversation that develops from there. The music falls somewhere between a Paris subway and a Brazilian brothel, all seen through hip hop colored glasses; the lyrics drift from Elysian Fields singer Jennifer Charles’s sexpot crooning to the unpredictable counterpoint of Faith No More’s Mike Patton.
The subject of the whole album is, of course, lovage. But as the name alone suggests, this is not your typical love album. Prince Paul spells out the present state of musical seduction in the intro: “Barry White used to work … shoot, even ABBA used to work, the way I was doing my thing … but man you put this on, the hoes just go wild.” It’s a self-proclaimed sonic Spanish fly, and that’s where the irony comes in. Put this on with a date and she’ll bolt.
Imagine you’re leaning in close to ol’ girl when an over-the-top duo groans “you want the bitter, I am the sweet. / You want the griddle, I am the meat.” It kills the mood in a way that’s hard to describe. And it’s a phenomenon that reoccurs every time orgiastic moaning fills the album’s symphonic flourishes. If you’re trying to seduce the opposite sex when this happens, and the girl’s not a super freak, it’s a moment rife with embarrassment.
In the right context, though, the album is perfect. The songs have a meditative quality that makes them an apt soundtrack for dorm-room life. Despite lyrics that might rub a timid listener the wrong way, the sound is completely inoffensive – so much so that the album verges on background music. That is, after all, what a love album is about. But the Automator was up for more than making white noise on this album.
When he’s at his best, the songs pull subtle, relaxing elements – strings, horns and piano – into raw expressions of feeling. If this is a concept album, it is the inverse of well-known works like Sergeant Pepper’s or The Wall; it doesn’t strive put on a spectacular show or cover a breadth of human experience. It dwells in nothing and draws as much from a languorous lack of feeling as it does from world-weary experience. But, like Shakespeare interrupting the drama with moments of irreverence, the album juxtaposes lovesick verses with inane skits – Afrika Bambaataa explaining how to avoid funky feet on “Herbs, Good Hygiene & Socks,” for instance. Rather than celebrating passion, this love album trivializes it. Mingling head-nod-worthy beats with a classic foreign film sound, the Automator weaves his story together in a grand parody of love and sex – and does it well.