The Irish DIY artist isn’t the first to note that while pop is fun, capitalism is perhaps a bit of a downer. But she’s uncommonly committed to the bit.
Human resources, like much of the verbal suit-starch of corporate communication, barely conceals a double meaning. There’s the handbook definition: everything available in your confidential employee assistance plan. Then there’s the literal meaning—human as resource—as well as its logical extension: fodder that grinds easiest when raw.
Meljoann, an Irish DIY pop artist now based in Brighton, knows something about being raw. Her 2010 debut, Squick, won over the Irish music press with wonky self-produced R&B tracks about reptilians and office supplies. Although rough around the edges, it showed ambition and imagination you don’t often get one album in.
HR is the result of a decade’s worth of honing. Once again, Meljoann reverse-engineers the back catalogs of Janet Jackson, Jam & Lewis, and their peers, but this time her Janet album of choice is Rhythm Nation 1814, and more “Black Cat” than “Escapade.” The sound suits the subject matter: 11 dispatches from corporate dystopia. She isn’t the first artist to note that while pop is fun, capitalism is perhaps a bit of a downer. But HR commits to the bit. The first track is called “Assfuck the Boss,” and that’s one of the less angry ones. In its social venom and unsparing bleakness, the album’s closest peer is probably U.S. Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited. But HR is both a one-woman show and a far less heady one: too furious for subtlety.
This is the kind of album that delivers, in a cool R&B purr, lines like, “You’ve got no means of production, girl.” In another artist’s hands, it might be disastrous, and HR sometimes toes the line. The unrelenting pummel of the arrangements is exhausting, though so is a 70-hour week. Not every lyric works, and given their brashness, when the lines miss they miss hard. (There’s lots of careful storytelling; there’s also at least one “wack.”) Occasionally the irony becomes a bit obvious; “Consumer,” a confection of bright synths and candy-coated dreams, could be cut by your pick of extremely online pop star. But it’s about the only track here that could.
Take “O Supervisor,” a Laurie Anderson pun in the form of a new jack swing track, over which Meljoann flings video-game metaphors at turbo speed. The comparison is apt—gaming is a world of bosses, grinding, and power fantasies for the powerless, brought to you by rampant exploitation, and its silliness is its weapon. The titular trip of “Company Retreat” is the stuff of, as one recent exposé put it, “Bacchian nightmare”: team-building banalities and furtive corporate raids, followed by “mandatory blow.” Meljoann brings it to heart-racing life with an industrial beat, frantic chromatic runs, and frayed, high-pitched panting that recalls Britney’s Blackout—itself a hedonistic nightmare of a pop album.
Sometimes the bleakness sets in gradually. “I Quit” is a 1990s ballad in the Brian McKnight or Mariah Carey mold, each chord signaling a poised epiphany and each line a blunt dismissal. But it’s never really cathartic; the structure meanders and the bridge ends in an atrophied version of the “Emotions” run. “Business Card” opens on a doomy synth riff, swaggering like masculinity; next, pitched-down backing vocals akin to the Knife’s “One Hit”; then, a body count: “I’m on the golf course/And I shot 18 souls/Got my PR on it.” It’s the most spiteful take on the subject since Patrick Bateman fumed over his colleagues’ stationery. “Ventilation Shaft” sets Meljoann’s best, bleakest lyric to horror-movie ambience: the human groans and inhuman creaks sound like something grotesque done to people in a storm drain.
At the other end of the doomer-to-optimist spectrum lies “Personal Assistant.” The title brings to mind consumer tech, and the chorus pings out a two-note chime not unlike the yes-sir chirping of Siri or Alexa. But the song’s subject is a human who’s finally glimpsing real freedom. The sound is exhilarating, all celebratory “1999” synths and constant forward motion, and the bridge ends with purpose: “There’s some shit we’re not supposed to take.” It’s a manifesto delivered on letterhead, stamped in venom ink.