"The best album in the world ever! Massive tunes! All the biggest stars! All the biggest hits!" So proclaims voice-over artist and former BBC DJ Mark Goodier partway through producer/mash-up pioneer Richard X's sprawling spectacle of a debut album. It's a joke -- obviously -- and a decent indication of the cheeky, lighthearted tone with which X constructs his reverently irreverent recombinant electro-pop. But it's not hard to take the suggestion at least a little bit seriously, particularly slotted as it is just before one of the most genuinely "massive" tunes of the early 2000s (in Britain, that is): the Adina Howard/Gary Numan frisson-collision "Freak Like Me," which began its (bastard) life as a bootleg 7" on X's Black Melody imprint (as "We Don't Give a Damn About Our Friends," recorded under the name Girls on Top), before it was re-recorded by the Sugababes and debuted at number one on the U.K. singles chart. (It appears here in the "We Don't Give a Damn Mix," which doesn't differ appreciably from the hit version.) Other legitimate hits include the similarly constructed "Being Nobody," a number three single that combines the Human League's "Being Boiled" with Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody," as resung by pop group Liberty X, and the number eight "Finest Dreams," a collaboration with Kelis which matched the League's "Things That Dreams Are Made Of" with S.O.S. Band's "The Finest." He wasn't kidding about the stars part, either -- they may not be all the biggest, but the album boasts an impressive guest roster including, in addition to the aforementioned, semi-legends Caron Wheeler (of Soul II Soul) and Deborah Evans-Strickland (of the Flying Lizards -- she appears on two tracks including a hilariously deadpan reading of pop standard "Walk on By"), hotly tipped singers Annie and Javine, the just plain hot Tiga, and the unclassifiable Jarvis Cocker.
All are subsumed into X's masterful, idiosyncratic, techno-futurist vision of pop possibility (a vision that is, admittedly, emphatically indebted to the early electronic dance-pop of X's '80s idols -- perhaps too much so for listeners with less than fond memories of that era.) The singles, excellent as they may be, are if anything overshadowed by the album as a whole; and the guests' contributions, while certainly enjoyable, don't stand a chance at stealing the spotlight from X's pithy, dynamic, synth pop productions. It may look like a hodge-podge on paper -- and it is quite literally a hodgepodge in terms of its composition, cobbling together bits and pieces of pop's past, present, and future -- but this is a remarkably streamlined listen. Which is not to suggest that there aren't highlights: there are plenty. Most of them are stacked towards the end, which allows the album plenty of time to establish itself before X starts dropping bombs such as the campy, utterly irresistible electro banger "You (Better Let Me Love You x4) Tonight" (featuring a slyly insistent Tiga.) And then there's "Into U," a brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed piece that uses Mazzy Star's "Fade into You" as the backdrop for one of Jarvis Cocker's most sincere and seductive vocal performances, along with some tasty slide guitar additions from Richard Hawley. The way that Cocker interweaves his lines around Hope Sandoval's sampled vocals in the chorus closes the album on an unexpectedly gorgeous note. It's a surprisingly sweet and human moment considering its cyborg origins, and it's an exquisite contrast to the tumultuous, unabashedly synthetic dance party of the rest of the album. [The American release on Astralwerks added two remixes as bonus tracks: an excellent dancehall reworking of "Being Nobody," and a squelchy, stripped-down version of "Finest Dreams."]