I used to work in an office where it was basically impossible to talk about music. One guy liked Rival Schools, but didn’t bring it up very often. Another dude liked a pretty wide range of stuff, some of it awful but some of it pretty good. We once saw Har Mar Superstar together, for example. But yeah, one day, he came into work all buzzing because he’d just discovered this new track with this amazing video and he couldn’t get enough of it. Had I heard it before? Had I heard Windowlicker by Aphex Twin?
Yes. Yes I had. This was long before this project began, while I was still neck-deep in The Fall, but I had heard Windowlicker before, many times. Seen the video, too. Yes. It is good. Yes. Very weird. Very funny. Have you heard anything else by him? I asked. No? OK.
Windowlicker isn’t my favourite Aphex Twin track, but it is for a lot of people. It’s the favourite of the average Warp Records fan, because they voted it as such. It’s MTV’s. It’s Pitchfork’s. Critical opinion and sales history is largely on its side. For many people, like my former colleague, it’s the only Aphex Twin song they’ve ever heard and ever bothered with – although a slightly smaller subset will have heard Come To Daddy too, and a smaller subset still will have heard Avril 14th, even if they have no idea it’s the same dude.
Why is it so well-renowned and so successful? Like I discussed last week with Come To Daddy, its relative success of James still didn’t really earn him an entry into the mainstream per se, forever toiling in the upper echelons of what you might call “the underground” along with… shit, I dunno, pre-American Idiot Green Day? That’s the only example I can get at right now. It’s been a long week. I don’t fucking feel like writing, I just feel like sleeping. This week saw too many deadlines to bother with this one, too, but power on I must. YEAH. Green Day in like 2002. Plenty of MTV play and record sales, plenty of casual fans who aren’t otherwise into the earlier catalogue or wider genre at large, but not quite man-on-the-street recognisable or headline-grabbing. You know what I mean. But Windowlicker is as close as James ever got to being a star.
Part of it is the record cover. Probably one of the greatest/worst covers of all time. Richard D. James’ smiling mush superimposed onto the body of a swimsuit model against an azure-blue background. Minimalist in composition, maximalist in weird-as-fuck-ness. It was years after seeing it for the first time that I actually saw the original photo, and was confused. Like, logically, this photo makes more sense, but without RDJ’s grin it just looks… off. It’s a brain-searing cover, probably hidden from many a mother in it’s time for a wide variety of conflicting reasonings. It’s pure James, though. There’s probably a wider discussion to be had about his usage of sexualised imagery within his music, from porn samples through to this, and there’s probably a metaphor to be taken from the use of hardcore porn in the esoteric Caustic Window tracks to the much softer imagery used alongside his biggest pop hit, but I’m not sure if it goes any further than that.
Then you’ve got the video. The ten-minute freak-fest containing endless masks of his own face, an expletive every two seconds, the 20-second limo shot, and potentially dicey issues regarding white people’s occasionally condescending views of black culture. It’s intended as a parody of gangsta rap excess, and it exceeds in that way, I guess, but you better believe there’d be a fuck-ton of think pieces about this video if it was released today, and not just because of its scale and, to be fair, general cinematic artistry. I’m not the biggest fan of the video, to be honest. For people like my former co-worker, it pulls attention away from the music involved. Want to hear this other Aphex Twin track? Does it have a ten minute video? No? Not bothered then.
So let’s talk about the music. I mean, people wouldn’t have bought it just for the cover and the video if it wasn’t a decent song, right? And it is a great song. I said it wasn’t my favourite Aphex Twin track, but why isn’t it? It’s fucking great! Released toward the end of his original run, pre-recession into the relative shadows of small-scale releases and silence, it captures pretty much everything that we love about him. Chaotic staticy breakbeats backed by beautiful melodies and weird vocal samples, stuffed full of weird tics and twists and turns and then it turns into a full-blown noise-wall at the end. There’s a FUCK lot packed into this six minutes, and some of it is the biggest pop hooks he has ever and will ever lay down. In a lot of ways, it’s kinda chillwave a full decade-and-a-bit before chillwave showed up, which goes to show both how ahead of its time Windowlicker is as well as how fucking recessive chillwave was as a sound/scene/aesthetic/whatever. Because Windowlicker WAS ahead of its time – you still struggle to find producers who can come out with one-off singles quite like this. The dense textures, the boundaries pushed, it sounds unreal even now. I guess I should mention the spectrogram stuff too, though that’s arguably done better on one of the B-sides.
Oh yeah, the B-sides. Not really mentioned them at all. ΔMi−1 = −αΣn=1NDi[n][Σj∈C[i]Fji[n − 1] +Fexti[n−1]] (or Equation for short) is the one with the creepy Richard D. James face spectrogram at the end, but to achieve it it has to sound largely shit. Very jarring and industrial after the pop gloss of Windowlicker, it’s a great contrast that calls back to his earlier work, but it’s not exactly the best example of it. Nannou is better, an indication of the clicky, minimalist, concretey sound he would pursue in the tracks on Drukqs, although it sounds as much like Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do by Sigur Ros as anything else. It’s a spot-on comedown track after what’s come before, but I can imaging there are plenty of people who rarely bothered to flip their copy of Windowlicker over to the other side – it’s the title track that really stands out. It’s a tough act to follow.
So why Windowlicker it my favourite Aphex Twin track? Why? I never listen to it much. I full-on forgot to listen to it all week so all of my reflections are essentially based on listening to just the A-side ten times in a row on loop at about 8:30am on Sunday morning. It’s a weird track for this time of the day and week, but it kind of suits my fried-out brain perfectly. It’s pretty much a perfect track. Maybe it is my favourite Aphex Twin thing, and I’ve just never quite realised it. Maybe I’ve just never listened to it enough. But I dunno. In creating something so poppy, so chart-ready, he loses something – Windowlicker lacks some of the warmth of Richard D. James Album or Selected Ambient Works Vol II and even Syro. And maybe he knew it.
After Windowlicker, we get Drukqs, which James is on record as saying was basically just a finished tracks dump after he lost an iPod on a plane and wanted to get stuff out before it leaked. After that, he receded into the background and went back to basics with Analord. Was Windowlicker the limit – he’d gone as far with computers, as far with the PR game, as he ever wanted to go, and now it was time to step back? Maybe. And for that reason, Windowlicker is a pinnacle of some point – but of what, I’m not sure.