Released: July 17th, 2015
Reviewed by Erik Wermuth
Brief disclaimer: ever since I first heard their self-titled album in 2007, Ratatat have been my favorite band, bar none. At that point I had heard electronic acts with something approaching Evan Mast and Mike Stroud’s ear for subtle build-up and original melodies, but never combined with the excitement that live instrumentation brings. Guitar and bass took the place of vocals and removed any distraction from the New York pair’s contribution to rock and electronic. More so than any review I could write, this one is from the perspective of a fanboy. I’ve done my best to temper my natural inclination to think that they can do no wrong, but nobody’s perfect (despite my instinct that, musically at least, these two are about as close as it gets).
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that back in 2011 when Ratatat announced they were beginning work on their fifth studio album, I was more than excited. News of an upcoming release would have been enough to send me skipping back and forth down my hallway with childish glee (not really), but every website announcing the album, tentatively referred to as LP5 after their last two albums LP3 and LP4, also included another nugget: the duo had secluded themselves in a beach house studio on Long Island to write and record.
With their unkempt hair, lack of vocals, and generally secretive attitude, they had always presented themselves as something like basement guitar gurus: cloistered monks of the electronic world. The news that they were holing up in a personal studio to work their obscure magic fit so perfectly with this narrative that I was utterly enthralled by imagining the process. As year after year passed and no further updates were forthcoming, the mystery only became more compelling. When at a certain point the wait for LP5 became something of a joke, like the endless wait for a new Duke Nukem and the internet even started to doubt its existence, I could only wait and picture a wide shot of the studio at night, with strange lights flashing through the windows and the cracks in the doors like a mystic laboratory.
When the news finally dropped that the album was coming, along with a name, its first single and the beginnings of a tour schedule, I went skipping back and forth down my hallway with childish glee (really). With such a huge 4 year buildup, nothing short of excellence would have sufficed and, for the most part, Magnifique delivers on that promise. The whole album bursts with the same energy that Ratatat have been bringing since 2004, and I absolutely can’t wait to see them live again with this album in the rotation.
Because of their flowing, instrumental style, I find that Ratatat is best listened to in terms of albums rather than individual songs, so I won’t give my usual track-by-track analysis. In Magnifique, Stroud and Mast confirmed their status as the modern American answers to Johann Sebastian Bach by perfecting a similar mathematical, theme-building style. In terms of their previous work, Magnifique sounds the most like their more standard first two albums Ratatat and Classics. However, some of the more involved production (particularly in the places where the album speeds up) evokes their more experimental LP3 and much of the slide-guitar work (particularly in the places where the album slows down) feels very much like the equally experimental LP4.
Most of all, Magnifique seems to be a combination of the lessons Stroud and Mast learned in making LP3/LP4 (the majority of which were recorded in the same studio session) and their more ‘standard’ sound present in Ratatat and Classics. To some, this kind of musical consolidation is the signal of a weaker effort, but this album feels more like a new apex and a necessary step than a simple rehashing of old ideas. The question of whether or not the duo have run out of creative juice after this effort is still up in the air, but considering the scope of Evan Mast’s many side projects (the sweet, downtempo e*vax and the exotic Abuela for instance), I find it hard to believe that’s possible. Nothing would make me happier than an experimental series LP6/LP7 followed by another consolidation of creative effort. We can only hope it takes less of a decade this time around.
In the end, if you’ve listened to Ratatat previously, Magnifique is only going to solidify your opinion of them, whatever that may be. If you’re new to the pair, the all-encompassing Magnifique just might be the perfect place to start. As a past, present, and future fan I give it a satisfied 4/5.