Album Review: Operators – Blue Wave

Dan Boeckner's synth rock project can't help but boast the frontman's unique knack for melody




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Near the middle of Operators’ debut LP, Blue Wave, lies “Shape of Things”. It’s a portentous title which cribs from the 1933 H.G. Wells book The Shape of Things to Come, a dystopic portrait of the future that predicted, among its many insights, Germany starting a second world war and the arrival of a modern, panoptic surveillance state. Suffice it to say, Operators frontman Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade, Divine Fits, and Handsome Furs fame) holds more than superficial interest in the way the past and future interact.

When gathering together Operators in 2013, a collaboration with Devojka and Divine Fits drummer Sam Brown, Boeckner professed a desire to make a dance band with analog synthesizers — no laptops allowed. It was the same impulse that drove James Murphy in creating LCD Soundsystem 15 years ago. Murphy beatified Talking Heads and Liquid Liquid, among many others, extending the derivative through-line back to the ’70s and early ’80s. The idea behind Operators isn’t new, even if the opening three songs — “Rome”, “Control”, and lead single “Cold Light” — might be as much fun as you’ll have on a rock record this year.

Perhaps aware of the long tradition on which his band draws, closing track “Space Needle” finds Boeckner singing, “We’re leaving here tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes.” Who needs a future when the past can reanimate itself in such a satisfying fashion? Unsurprisingly, Blue Wave, the band’s first proper LP, sounds both old and new at once. Boeckner’s aching vocals tantalize Wolf Parade fans starved for new material from the band’s family tree. Listeners are thrust backwards into Apologies to the Queen Mary-era zeitgeist and forwards toward the 2016 reanimation of Wolf Parade on the festival circuit. History pulls against the future. Or maybe the future pulls against history, depending on the perspective from which you view the worn elastic of linear time.

Other signifiers emerge here, too, some recent and some less so. Blue Wave owes a great deal to New Order and Joy Division — Operators’ “Control” putting itself in conversation with “She’s Lost Control”, for instance. But elements of TV on the Radio (the horn punches on “Mission Creep”), Future Islands (the slinky and sober “Nobody”), and LCD Soundsystem are also winking footnotes here. The first Operators EP pitched itself toward Violator-era Depeche Mode; their influences and range have broadened with time.

Blue Wave grows a bit uneven in its final third, a reminder of how many songs Depeche Mode and New Order wrote that didn’t make the greatest hits compilations. We’ve cleaned up the past, edited out the messier bits, imposed a narrative, and forgotten the album cuts. The remembered gestalt of ’80s allows Blue Wave its power, and also posits the album’s one weakness. It both is and isn’t quite how we want to remember it. Boeckner relies on his deft sense for writing pop hooks, even as the synthesizer arrangements grow increasingly abrasive. Operators attempt to generate the aesthetic of modern anxiety and panic with old sounds, a move that works intermittently, producing a difficult sense of deja vu.

At our juncture in modern history, what object could better describe the intersection of old and new than the analog synthesizer? It is, technically speaking, both. Whatever the historical discourse outlined, though, Blue Wave overflows with Boeckner’s unique knack for melody. Its timelessness — and this is maybe a helpful term for wrestling with Blue Wave — is attributable, in no small measure, to Boeckner’s strength as a songwriter. On “Control”, opening with its cascading synthesizers, he muses, “And when you’re gone, there’s only the document of what you’ve done.” Lyrically, we are thrust into the future and past again, seeing the fatalism of the future through the tricky language of the artifacts of history. Boeckner can’t quite square the circle between past and future — the predictions of “Things to Come”, what was and what will be — becoming only a part of what is.

Essential Tracks: “Control”, “Cold Light”, and “Space Needle”