Men I Trust’s Oncle Jazz will prove to be a defining album of the times.
In the liner notes of Brian Eno’s first album of ambient music — the now classic, dismissed by Rolling Stone at the time as unfocused and lacking personality — Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Eno laid out his intentions: “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” So much of the music consumed today (specifically on streaming services, but often on the radio as well) serves the sole purpose of being an ignorable, silence cleanser. In her crisis-outlining essay, “The Problem With Muzak”, Liz Pelly outlines how Spotify and streaming services, in general, have changed the music industry, listening habits, and music itself. “Muzak”, which Eno also sights in his liner notes, is music made by a corporation to be played in the background, which is exactly what so many music consumers are looking for. They do not want to be challenged, they want to chill.
At the time of publication, Oncle Jazz, the independently released third full-length album by Montreal’s Men I Trust (and first featuring full-time vocalist Emma Proulx), is the all-time best selling item under the “Canada” tag on Bandcamp. Yes, the percentage of music listeners who buy their music from Bandcamp (let alone buy music at all) is relatively small, but I think this is a significant fact. You would think that a “commercial success” like Oncle Jazz would be getting its due in publications in their own country and on tastemaking websites all over the world. You would be mistaken. There are myriad possible reasons why critics and tastemakers let this forward-thinking and brilliantly crafted album slip by without any consideration. Perhaps they were distracted by the flashy Charli XCX album released on the same day. It is fitting though: after all, many future classics were ignored or met with indifference at the time of their release, only to be lauded ten years down the road once every band on earth is influenced by it. Oncle Jazz will be considered a classic in decades to come, I am certain of it.
Oncle Jazz is subversive, ambient pop music for the Spotify age: not droning enough for listeners to reach nirvana; muted and mellow enough to wind up on every “chill” playlist ever made; intricate and interesting enough to turn up loud and get lost inside. The secret to Men I Trust’s success lies in their commitment to an aesthetic mellowness while still writing perfectly crafted pop songs. Kurt Cobain wrote Beatles rip-offs and made them his own by adding screams and distortion; Men I Trust belong to the same pop music continuum. Instead of roughing up the formula, they smooth it out completely. Synths and guitar licks colour the songs on Oncle Jazz, and Proulx’s understated but relentlessly catchy melodies are endearing, but it is the historically underappreciated bass that keeps things interesting. Jessy Caron is like a more tasteful and pedestrian Thundercat. His playing is the soul of the album and he is the band member most likely to show off his moves. Proulx’s lyrics are thoughtful, modern and often as beautiful as they are funny. You wouldn’t know it without the lyrics in front of you though — just like everything else on Oncle Jazz, the amount you put in is the amount you get out of it.
Oncle Jazz’s length may seem daunting, but I assure you, this is no bloated Drake record. The whole thing flies by in an instant because it doesn’t demand your undivided attention the whole way through. Its strength is that no matter where or when you tune out, you get a sense of satisfaction whenever you tune in. Over the last decade, our perception of time has become completely fucked, and Men I Trust managed to take advantage of this and revel in it. They essentially obliterate time. You can listen to the album for twenty minutes or four hours and enjoy it just the same — its seventy-one-minute run time is merely a suggestion. Many songs don’t have real beginnings or endings; they just fade in and out. Songs are reprised. 80s indebted guitar solos float by like sexy wisps of cloud. Synth parts sound like they are literally melting off of the song’s bones. A voice coos “You’re listening to radio Men I Trust”. Oncle Jazz is deceptively immersive. It is packaged as a passive listening experience and likely appeals to those who are looking for a passive listening experience, but its genius is that if you choose to look beyond the veneer, this is an album that rewards active listeners far more than most Spotifycore ever could.
Music that is easy to listen to has always been treated a suspect at best amongst passionate music fans and critics (take smooth jazz in the late 80s or vaporwave at the end of the 00s for example). Just the other week, Pitchfork ran as harsh a review as the site runs these days on Men I Trust tourmates Turnover and their new album Altogether, claiming they have taken “chill” too far. Is vibe-based music simply pandering to an unengaged audience? Is it patronizing to those that are actively engaged with music on an intellectual level? Perhaps, but the miscalculation here is the assumption that listeners who seek a vibe-based listening experience or prefer their music to be soothing or smooth, are unengaged. Tell that to fans of aesthetically loud, but musically chill, global pop superstar Billie Eilish. Tell that to all the people who have made Oncle Jazz the all-time best selling Canadian release on Bandcamp. Men I Trust are a sign that ambient music, a niche genre since day one, has become an essential part of the modern pop music equation. The music they make is as ignorable as it is interesting and it is made all the more interesting because of it. Oncle Jazz will prove to be a defining album of the times. May it provide us with a glimmer of hope that our algorithmic and chill future just might be as sonically and artistically satisfying as the past.