Artist: Iggy Pop
Released: September 6th, 2019
Highlights: Loves Missing, James Bond, Page
A series of atmospheric hums emerge inside a wide and sparse soundscape. A duel of freestyling trumpets, one that seems to come out from somewhere in the depths of a dirty alley and another that appears to be far closer, is sparked. And suddenly, as the relaxing immersive racket reaches its apex, Iggy Pop shows up to deliver four words that seem to encompass the essence of his eighteenth album. “I wanna be free / I wanna be free / Free”, he speaks with that signature low tone, which has characterized him through his whole solo career but that has become surprisingly solemn and maybe even wise with age, before vanishing like a voice from beyond that has breezed by listeners with the goal of delivering a succinct message that hides some sort of major revelation.
If freedom is what Iggy wanted, then that is exactly what he has found with his 2019 release, “Free”. Following “Post Pop Depression”, his collaboration with Josh Homme and quite possibly his most successful album since 1977’s “Lust for Life”, Iggy could have certainly taken the easy way out, gathered the very same band, and built yet another testosterone-infused album that is as heavy and dark as it is sexy and insightful. But apparently, returning to good old straightforward rock after an interval of two albums and sixteen years was enough for the singer to realize that, ultimately, the genre that launched him to the world alongside The Stooges is also a hand that constrains him.
Suffocated by it, “Free” works like some sort of declaration of independence by Iggy Pop. Its unexpected style is likely to make it an album that his fans, especially those who jumped back into the bandwagon after “Post Pop Depression”, did not want him to produce at this moment in time. However, its content, title, and opening statement broadcast in blatantly defined waves that “Free” is the album Iggy Pop wanted to create as of 2019. In a way, it is strange that such a personal message is delivered through a record in which only three out of the ten songs have him as a co-author. On the other hand, though, such characteristic reveals that “Free” has a nature so urgent that it just had to be unveiled whether Iggy had the material in him or not.
The result is a piece that is, in equal parts, odd, charming, irregular, and daring. “Free” could be labeled as a jazz album thanks to how its most prominent instrument is, by far, the trumpet of Leron Thomas, whose improvisational spirit is so dominating that he gets writing credit for nine of the record’s tunes. It could also be filed under the ambient category, for the moments when Iggy is supported by background noise, usually accompanied by a horn, are more numerous than those when he has a full band behind him. Finally, it would not be out of place in the spoken-word universe, as it holds a bigger quantity of talking than of singing. What “Free” really is, though, is all of those musical moods combined into a brief but meaningful package.
All in all, two are the cuts in “Free” that approach what one would expect out of a contemporary Iggy Pop record. “Loves Missing”, the finest tune in the album by a large margin, still has fragments of “Post Pop Depression”, as it starts with a dangerous combination of drums and insinuating guitar licks before slowly accentuating its dark sexy vibe when more guitars come in and the beat gets progressively more chaotic. Meanwhile, “James Bond” uses a bit of the same recipe, with the difference that stands between both songs being the fact that while the former grows by moving forward, the latter does so by going in circles with an ever-increasing intensity. Everywhere else, “Free” poses a considerable challenge to those that step into it.
Even if there is a clear distinction between the album’s two halves, that difficult aura exists in both parts. The first five tracks of “Free”, with the exception of the opening number, feel more like fully developed songs. In addition to “Loves Missing” and “James Bond”, that initial segment also includes “Sonali” and “Dirty Sanchez”; however, where the first pair borders on conventional, the second duo is positively weird. “Sonali” has an unusual beat and a myriad of electronic adornments that, at least instrumentally, make it sound a whole lot like a Radiohead song, and Iggy Pop wears his Thom Yorke hat proudly by trying to deliver lines and melody amidst very uncommon musical timing. Quite contrarily, “Dirty Sanchez” is an old-school Iggy Pop rant that includes ridiculous character-building lines such as “You desensitized sluts / Are always playing with your butts”, with the twist being that it is backed up by a marching drum, an out of control trumpet, a call-and-response structure, and a guitar and bass that try to keep the madness anchored to a solid groove.
Following that segment, the second half brings with it a myriad of spoken word tracks that are perhaps a bit too tightly packed together for their own good. As different mixtures of atmospheric sounds and wild horns fill up the vast silence, Iggy Pop basically sits and reads poetry: two original texts, “Glow in the Dark” and “The Dawn”, as well as Lou Reed’s “We Are the People” and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”. Although Iggy’s voice does have the potential to make even a cake recipe sound engaging, it is unable to turn these tunes into must-listens, even when they consist of words as poignant as those of Reed and Thomas. Thankfully, though, the final part of “Free” does have a positive note, which comes in the form of “Page”, where an echoing picked guitar brings new spice to the side’s usual instrumentation while Iggy – taking full advantage of his voice – plays the role of a crooner as he sings a track that is beautiful, wishful, and moving.
Despite its highlights, which are indeed great additions to the Iggy Pop canon, “Free” never quite gains enough traction to be a good record. “Dirty Sanchez” is so terrible it is almost embarrassing, and not even the funny turns its rant takes can save it; “Sonali” simply falls flat; and the absurd amount of spoken-word tracks the album carries drags it down, even if none of them are downright bad. As such, “Free” winds up being a record that, while rather meaningful to Iggy Pop himself, will likely go down as one of the weakest entries in his discography, because although the album’s flirtations with experimental constructions and jazz are interesting – not to mention a nice nod to “Blackstar” by David Bowie, who was a crucial figure in Iggy Pop’s life – they are just not carried out with the required spark.