A lot of (seemingly intelligent) people said a lot of very, very crazy, hyperbolic, rabidly excitational things about Last Exit around its release in 2004. “Junior Boys have done no less than singlehandedly re-imagined a future for white pop,” started one review from an online music magazine (a very good online music magazine at that!). At the time I was a little bemused; I’d seen their name talked about in whispered reverence online for a few months as early EPs and singles crept out, remixes by the likes of Fennesz and Manitoba (now known as Caribou) who I loved and who seemed to turn everything to gold as far as my ears were concerned.
But when I actually listened to Junior Boys, with the expectation of great- nay, ASTONISHING things – nothing less than a future for white pop, perhaps – and I was left feeling shortchanged.
Because what I heard was… minimal to the point of vapidity, shy to the point of solipsism, so empty and desiccated and cold and uncommunicative that it seemed like the opposite of pop, rather than a reinvention thereof. Which isn’t to say that it was bad – it just wasn’t at all what I thought I was being sold by the discourse.
Many years on, I still find Junior Boys, and Last Exit in particular, much easier to theorise than to love, much easier to talk about than singalong with. There are some great, subdued melodies here, of that there is no doubt (“Birthday”, “High Come Down”), and some delicious grooves too (“Under The Sun”), plus enough moments of vatic beauty (the coda of “Teach Me How To Fight”) to stir the soul. But were there really tunes, hooks, choruses, actual pop thrills? You know, the things that would be necessary for a “re-imagined future” for “white pop”? I wasn’t sure.
A lot of people in those early days talked about how Junior Boys had interpolated ideas and rhythms from the likes of Timbaland, who I was obsessed with back then, and other r&b and mainstream pop, but I wasn’t hearing the necessary energy and communication of real pop in Last Exit. It didn’t push buttons in the same way as Sugababes or Justin Timberlake or Nelly Furtado or Missy Elliott or Aaliyah; it sounded like a ghost of pop music, as if someone admired the technique but didn’t quite love the feeling.
So I listened to Last Exit a dozen or more times, didn’t quite hear whatever it was that had so inspired a handful of people, and put it away. I bought their next album, So This Is Goodbye, a couple of years later, gave it a cursory listen, and then left them both on the shelf.
Last September, Tom played Last Exit at our record club, and I was intrigued all over again. He played it on vinyl, which, obviously I’m normally not keen on, but after being so used to MP3s and then a CD, the warmth and hum of vinyl, which usually feels like a veil over details and excitement to me, helped Last Exit make more sense to me, made it more human.
I’ve played it quite a few times since then, and I feel like its skeletal, atmospheric songs – which are less songs, really, than vignettes, a lot of the time – make more sense to me now, the way they avoid the obvious hook, the way such sparse arrangements and such unassuming (for want of a better word) vocals pack such emotional resonance into such seemingly clinical spaces.
Intriguingly, the second half of the record, which is largely absent of the influence of Johnny Dark, one half of the initial Junior Boys partnership with Jeremy Greenspan, is the half I like best; it’s arguably the more linear, obvious half, but we’re talking the politics of small differences here. Dark, who, as far as I can tell, was an unusual character, left halfway through recording and was replaced by Matt Didemus, who’d been the duo’s engineer. Didemus and Greenspan have continued as a duo, and made a handful of records since; all well received, but none fawned over or in receipt of such hyperbole as this. I like So This Is Goodbye well enough, and there are occasional remixes by and for the likes of Caribou which are always worth checking out, but I’m not in love with anything by them. Still, there’s something very special, and perhaps unique, about this record.