Beyoncé had a great December. She released a surprise album, hit #1, gave away money at Walmart, granted the wish of a dying child, and in the fait accompli, received a thank you from Montreal duo Zebrat.
It’s all very tongue in cheek, but Fairyland is suffused with a sense of fun, immediately apparent on the cover (which drew our attention in the first place). Hints of Neverland are apparent, while the dual font imitates those found in illustrated children’s books. “The purpose of this record is to show you how to use your imagination to achieve your every desire”, states an uncredited narrator in the opening track, whose use of samples recalls Public Service Broadcasting. After grooving along for a spell, the track erupts with the bassline of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”, leaving out the registers and guns, which have not been approved for all audiences. We’re already hooked.
This track – and the others on the short album – succeed because they resist falling strictly into one category. Hip-hop, rock and pop inflections lend these seven tracks a welcome variety. Two pieces contain additional cello. Any old concepts of what constitutes a sample, a mash-up or a DJ mix are discarded at a rapid pace; when live instrumentation becomes the base, all bets are off. Apart from the aforementioned sample, this is less a set of “name that tune” than it is of “enjoy that tune”. Like Lemon Jelly before them, the artists use every tool at their disposal: a drum beat, a guitar lick, a synth line. A strange alchemy is involved; the set possesses the je ne sais quoi so rarely found in sample-happy music. But when pure enjoyment is involved, we don’t need explanation. On the title track, a woman intones, “I just like it”. This is the same answer given by children in an Apple Jacks ad when asked why they like the cereal, and it’s good enough for us.
The cello makes its first appearance on album highlight “Bewilderment”, which hearkens back to Aim’s “Cold Water Music”, down to the use of a melancholic dialogue extract. “It was a dead sound”, the narrator repeats, while all around him the sound is marvelously alive. The best fairy tales contain a certain level of danger, and “Bewilderment” contributes such a sense; whether this is instinctive or intentional, the tension is exquisite. The headlines may be going to Beyoncé, but this is what we want to hear on the airwaves this season. (Richard Allen)