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Thundercat’s New Album Is a Surreal Chuckle in Midst of the Void

‘Drunk’ channels anxiety into humor about the confusing state of the world.

Colin Joyce

Thundercat seems like he's thinking a lot about death these days. Since his last full-length Apocalypse, the bassist and songwriter born Stephen Bruner played on much of Flying Lotus' You're Dead! and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, two records by a couple of his good friends that directly confronted the heaviness of mortality. His own last release, the 2015 EP The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam, featured lyrics about spilling blood, existential panic, and featured a moving tribute to the late cosmic jazz pianist (and his close friend) Austin Peralta, who passed away a few years ago at the age of 22. That latter track was called, simply, "Song for the Dead."

Given his track record, it shouldn't be a surprise that his new album, Drunk, carries on these sober meditations. He sings on "Jaleel's Space Ride" of the danger he faces from cops on his own block as a black man. He ponders the morbid pull of Aokigahara, Mount Fuji's infamous "suicide forest," on the Frank Zappa-esque prog-funk prank, "Tokyo." He even recycles "Them Changes," that blood-stained track from The Beyond at the midway mark of this LP. But something's different this time around, from the goofy leer of the cover art to the kaleidoscopic instrumentation that rules most of this record to the choice of guests (FlyLo and Lamar make appearances, but so do schlock-rock superstars Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins). It's clear that this isn't a funeral dirge; instead, at its darkest it's a moribund celebration—a smirk and an airhorn blast in the face of impending doom.

Look closer at those songs that dwell on death directly. "Tokyo" is mostly a wide-eyed ode to the sensorial pleasures the titular city has on offer—the suicide forest's just a dark way of saying he never wants to leave. "Them Changes" ballasts surreal horror with goofy mouth sound basslines. Even something as grave as "Jaleel's Space Ride" moves quickly from its anxiety into harmonically tricky dreams of aliens, sung over a bouncy keyboard line. The song that follows is a loopy unpacking of the idea of the "Friend Zone" that mostly ends up being an ode to playing video games by yourself. The world is still as horrible as it always has been, he seems to suggest, but that shouldn't stop you from embracing the fun parts either.

While The Beyond's somber reflections marked Bruner's best work to date, Drunk's best moments, by contrast, are triumphant. He punctuates even the most depressing moments with a nebula bright synthesizer arpeggio, or one of his virtuosic bass leads, which still hit with the concussive force of a t-shirt cannon. The two-minute interlude "Blackkk" states his mission most directly: "I want to experience all that light has to offer me [...] Don't be afraid of death. We'll be gone in the twinkling of an eye." Reflecting on the state of the world in a recent interview with FACT, Bruner stated it just a little differently, "You've gotta laugh to keep from crying, you know?"