Emperor X – Oversleepers International

Oversleepers International is a Record of Big Ideas. We’re only two songs in and Schopenhauer and Hegel have already made their appearance (in fact, Henri Bergson gets mentioned even before that, in the very first line of the first song). Schopenhauer, as you remember, was a pretty gloomy guy, way worse than Nietzsche. Hegel, on the other hand, was and still is incomprehensible, but somehow this didn’t stop those Hegelians. Fortunately, I’m an analytic! Chad Matheny must be well aware of the importance of those ideas: ‘Wasted on the Senate Floor’ is an intense album opener, spewing one compressed intelligent sentence after another. The ‘whoo!’s are ecstatic and careless and the accordeon resembles a circus with one of those revolving décors that make it feel as if you’re on a trip around the world. And indeed, with Emperor X we meet one important historical figure after the other while spanning multiple countries. Jules Verne never gets mentioned, but it’s his spirit of adventure and discovery that is prominently present on Oversleepers International.

But more than being an intellectual record, Oversleepers International is, despite Emperor X’s being from the States, a distinctly European album. Apart from ‘Wasted on the Senate Floor’, which, as the title suggests, opens the album in media res right in Washington, D.C., the setting is the Continent. Already on the second track, Schopenhauer flies back from New York’ JFK to Berlin’s Tegel (which rhymes with Hegel). Very much like Matheny himself, in fact, who has also moved to Berlin where he has recorded Oversleepers International. I am therefore tempted to compare Emperor X to late 70s David Bowie, who, with Low and Heroes (forget about Lodger) soundtracked the Europe of his time, defined chiefly by the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. It’s the kind of perspective only an outsider can provide.

The essence of present-day Europe is movement and migration. Oversleepers International features a plethora of visa applications, border-crossings and ambassy bureaucracy. There are two sides to this. On the one hand there is migration within Europe, the freedom of movement the European Union prides itself on. ‘Oversleepers International’, for example, takes us on an overnight sleeper train from Poland to Ukraine – trains which are fast disappearing, by the way, as a consequence of the increased availability of cheap intracontinental flights! Or take ‘Low Orbit Ion Cannon’, which is named after a digital application used mainly in hacking, but which reminds me of CERN, another one of those Big European Projects that spans multiple countries, has scientists from all over the world working together and costs loads of publicly funded money without having any direct practical implications. It’s the kind of international scientific collaboration that’s as much of an ideal as freedom of movement, and it’s beautiful.

Of course, not every European ‘project’ is. The other side of the medal of freedom of movement is the Frontex border and Europe’s treatment of refugees and non-European migrants, which has been shocking and inhumane. Those Syrian refugees are present on International Sleepers too. On ‘30,000 Euroes’, the most disarmingly beautiful track on the album, Matheny is standing at the Syrian border. It’s an ironic reversal of which he must be well aware: the Western migrant who has succesfully moved to Berlin finds himself at the edge of a civil war that is indirectly hailing in the end of the EU. “They deserve the same!”, Matheny angrily shouts. The relation between Europe and the rest of the world returns on ‘God Save Coastal Dorset’, which is set in England, an island that even before Brexit has always been split between the Continent and the USA. The title aptly references the Kinks’ portrayal of Little England: “God save strawberry jam in all its different varieties”. When Matheny solemnly says “Remain”, we already know they didn’t. In that sense, Brexit also is a Big European Project.

Emperor X is undoubtedly an intellectual project, full of only half-comprehensible sentences, tonnes of references, locations and dates. But it’s not the work of someone who considers himself superior, of who wants to show off. The mind at work here is one which remembers, associates and imagines. That’s how Schopenhauer can end up getting drunk at a karaoke bar; that’s how Matheny can stand safe at the Syrian border. Oversleepers International contains, as far as I can see, equal amounts fact and fiction and as such is as much story as textbook. It’s a mistake to think of it as pretentious – it’s closer to playing pretend. And then I haven’t even mentioned the immense musical energy on here. Most tracks are fast and furious, reminiscent of The Mountain Goats but much less reserved. On ‘Riot for Descendant Command’, Matheny shouts “We’re gonna burn a cop car!” and “We just prevented the apocalypse!”. End times are here, yes. There are two songs on which Matheny allows himself a bit more room for experiment. ‘Warmth Perimeter’ sounds like a trance-y version of Kid A-era Radiohead, and despite being completely out of tune with the rest of the album it works surprisingly well as a more distant, estranging moment between all the emotional close-ups. ‘5-Hour Energy, Poland, 2017’ closes the album with a crescending feedback loop that never becomes threatening.

So what is Oversleepers International? Is it a Great European Record, the Heroes of our time, placing itself firmly against a rich historical context but also recognisable as the work of a unique mind? Or should we see it as a swansong; the obituary of a Union that perhaps never was; an ode to the disappearing night train; an exploration of free movement and its limits? Or, perhaps more than anything, a wish, an Ideal (remember Hegel?). As Matheny sings: “We dream / We connect / In communion”.

-- Caspar Jacobs, May 9, 2017