At this point, listening to Ratatat is like eating a banana: palatable to most, exceptional to few, and extremely dependable. In the decade elapsed since their wonderful self-titled debut, Ratatat has made very solid music that has rarely surprised and just as rarely disappointed. Fans who listened to the excellent early single, “Cream on Chrome”, got exactly what they were hoping for—catchy, guitar driven background music steeped in electronica. The single achieves the effortless melodic intertwine that defines Ratatat’s best works, and set us up for exactly what they delivered: a pretty good album.
This reliability, however, is as much a gift as a curse. Magnifique, Ratatat’s fifth full length LP, offers nothing to offend old fans, but very little to attract new ones. While the album never quite lives up to the promise of “Cream on Chrome”, Magnifique is an exercise in extreme competence. Mike Stroud’s guitar work is characteristically excellent throughout, and Evan Mast’s production verges on flawless, even if the album isn’t exactly a diamond in its own right. Now veterans in the indie scene, Stroud and Mast have mastered elements of technical execution that their younger and rawer indie counterparts often lack. While this makes Ratatat anything but exciting, it has certainly made them admirable, and maybe even venerable in a genre defined by quick turnover and fleeting success.
Their music, per usual, functions better within the context of the album than as individual songs. It progresses with care and logic, with later songs often re-examining themes from the album’s first half, as in “Supreme”, whose lovely guitar gently echoes that of “Magnifique” without feeling superfluous. “Drive”, composed in a similar fashion, is ocean music if ever it existed. Mast probably broke a finger, he leans on the pitch bend so hard. I swear it must have been composed in Sperry’s. Of course, it wouldn’t be Ratatat without the more club-ready synth-heavy tracks like “Abrasive” and “Countach”. This flexibility is one of Ratatat’s greatest strengths—the ability to seamlessly move between genres to produce tracks equally amalgamated from instrumental commercial scores and video game soundtracks.
That’s not to say there aren’t missteps. “Nightclub Amnesia”, sounds like a parody of going out music, and is just a few phallic lyrics away from a Lonely Island song. “Rome” and “Primetime” are basically just filler, rounding out the album’s necessary 45 minutes with some noise that sounds more or less like the noise that came before it. Not that this effect is necessarily unpleasant—after all, Magnifique is undoubtedly music designed to listen to while doing something else. Luckily, because of the breadth, variety, and, frankly unobtrusive nature of the music, that something else could mean basically anything. In the brief days I’ve had it, Magnifique has already scored a workout session, essay composition, pizza consumption, and an argument with my mother.
Perhaps the most significant takeaway, though, comes from the album’s final proper song, “I Will Return”. A cover of a mostly forgotten Springwater track from the 1970s, the closer reminds us that this music existed well before Stroud and Mast and will exist long after. Despite my tongue-in-cheek tone, this is ultimately a positive, ending the album on a note of optimism and triumph. Here we discover Ratatat’s true gift: to convey, without the crutch of lyrics, a sense of eternal positivity and longevity. Words, at the best of times, allow us only to approach true communication. By contrast, Magnifique’s currency is a lovely vanilla purity, unadulterated by human vocal clumsiness. It is expansion through limitation, which allows the album’s extreme hopefulness to outlast the album itself. Individual melodies may not stick in your head, but Magnifique, as a complete work, offers a musical experience unavailable beyond Ratatat’s veteran production table. Sure, it might not be your thing, but there’s not much Ratatat can do about that at this point. They know their audience, and they deliver what it wants.
Magnifique is out July 17. Get it on MP3, CD, and vinyl.