Party Before the Storm

Jake Muir’s Bathhouse Blues

What does freedom sound like? Bathouse Blues, the new album by Berlin-based electronic musician Jake Muir, wants us to ask this question.

The reality principle of the past, Berlin Holocaust Memorial.

But that’s because the Californian expatriate gave the record titles that cannot be ignored.

It is doubtful that someone listening to “Cruisin’ 87” and “Pipe Dream” blind would guess that Muir made prominent use of pornographic films in sourcing raw material for these two roughly twenty-minute collages.

By themselves, the subdued, ethereal tracks seem like complements to narratives we must conjure from negative space. But they give the impression of being soundtracks for science-fiction, not sexual fantasy.

The shimmering synthesiser notes that float through a bed of dub-worthy crackles and pops have a distinctly retro feel, calling to mind the cerebral atmospherics of Vangelis’s famous score for Blade Runner.

It’s Netflix-and-chill for a future past.

Like the most celebrated Hyperdub releases from the mid-2000s, Bathhouse Blues communicates nostalgia for wasted potential.

Whereas Burial’s Untrue and Kode9 and the Spaceape’s Memories of the Future hearken back to the rave and jungle culture of the 1990s, however, Bathhouse Blues transports us into a realm of sexual fantasy.

Even knowing the title of Muir’s album and its two tracks, it’s hard to get our bearings. The moans and grunts we identify with porno are entirely absent.

Only the affectless male voices that surface from time to time on “Pipe Dream, ” reminiscent of the young Keanu Reeves, clue us into the fact that we are inside a heterotopia twice removed from everyday reality.

We aren’t hearing the goings-on in a gay bathhouse, the sort of precarious alternative space where the scarcity of satisfaction was temporarily transcended, but a soundscape that permits us to fantasise about an era when the community it facilitated was not shadowed by loss and despair.

At least, that’s the interpretation to which decades of cultural conditioning leads. But perhaps the in-your-faceness of Muir’s titles represents an attempt to break that habit.

Bathhouse Blues resonates differently today than it would have a couple of decades ago.

Back then, listeners tuned in to its invocation of gay sexuality would almost certainly have heard it as an elegy for the improbable explosion of freedoms cut short by AIDS.

Since the recent introduction of pre-exposure prophylactic medications like Truvada and Apretude, however, it is once again becoming possible to have sex with multiple partners without much risk of contracting HIV.

Although other sexually transmitted diseases remain a serious problem in subcultures where promiscuity is widespread, the resurgence of casual, collectively oriented sex holds the promise of a world in which the future past is once again the future.

Unfortunately, this decoupling of sex and death is taking place against an increasingly bleak political backdrop.

Throughout the developed world, we are witnessing an ideological retrenchment that makes the neoconservative revolution of Thatcher, Reagan, Kohl, etc., seem mild.

In other words, the political implications of bathhouse culture, its implicit sexual socialism, are being foregrounded by a technologically abetted clampdown on any form of personal freedom that is incompatible with the toxic fusion of authoritarian populism, xenophobia, and religious fundamentalism rising throughout the developed world.

And then there is the fate of our planet itself.

Even if sexual promiscuity no longer seems like a death wish, the profligacy human beings of all political persuasions demonstrate in their use of the Earth’s rapidly dwindling natural resources reminds us that the negative consequences of hedonism cannot be managed with a pill or injection.

Maybe that’s why Bathhouse Blues so forcefully evokes the sensibility of Blade Runner and the cyberpunk fiction of writers like William Gibson and Pat Cadigan.

For the better part of a century, we have had the capacity to eradicate poverty the way we once did smallpox.

Yet our colossal failure to move beyond an economic order that depends on massive inequality has trapped us within a perverse dynamic in which we produce and consume far more than is sustainable simply to raise the global standard of living a tiny amount without preventing the rich from getting richer.

In a world where the inherently asymmetrical logic of capitalism continues to dominate, the liberties we are able to take in bathhouses, whether literal or figurative, will come at a price most people still cannot afford.

At the same time, it is much better to preserve the fantasy of a better life for all than to resign ourselves to the status quo.

The heterotopian energies channelled by Bathhouse Blues are too limited and too unevenly distributed to serve as pre-exposure prophylaxis for the injuries of global capitalism.

Yet the album’s luminous soundscapes still encourage us to contemplate a world in which plenitude is not compromised by scarcity.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.