It may sound like hyperbole, but there is truly no one out else there quite like Astronautalis. In addition to moonlighting as a travel writer, avid photographer, Harley¬rider, and most assuredly being the first rapper to perform and have a piece on display at the world famous Venice Biennale, this nomadic wordsmith has been perfecting his own unique hybrid of hip¬hop, indie rock and punk for over a decade. Cut The Body Loose is Astronautalis' fifth full¬length and also the first album he's released since his Justin Vernon a.ka. Bon Iver¬fronted, high¬profile hybrid project Jason Feathers, who released their debut De Oro last year. While sonically different from Astronautalis' own music, he insists that in many ways this album was inspired by the making of De Oro.
"The process of creating De Oro with Justin Vernon and those other guys was the most fun I ever had making an album and it really changed the way I thought about making my own," Astronautalis explains. In keeping with that new approach, he decided to record Cut The Body Loose at Justin Vernon’s April Base home/studio outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with his long time producer, engineer, and musical collaborator, John Congleton (Modest Mouse, St Vincent, Earl Sweatshirt).
"I realized early on in the writing process that I was creating my record about the south that I grew up in, and around, and down the block from,” he explains, “as well as my Father's South, my Mother's South, and the South of the past, and the South of future, and all the magic, and mysticism, and horror, and tragedy, and weird, sweaty, fucked up beauty that entailed.”
Not only did Astronautalis take influence from the music that was ubiquitous to his youth like Trick Daddy, Mystikal, Three 6 Mafia and the classic No Limits Records roster, he drew further inspiration from every corner of the south's musical past. He cites everything from the New Orleans trad jazz of Allen Touissant and Professor Longhair, to the hill country blues of Mississippi Fred McDowell, the night trips of Dr. John, and even the legendary college marching bands during halftime at the Florida Classic.
And somehow, Astronautalis manages to tie this "bi¬polar southern insanity" to the dominant hip¬hop hallmarks of today to create his own jagged, puzzle¬piece persona on this record. "Running Away From God" is about him attending a wedding in New Orleans six months after Hurricane Katrina and admiring the beauty of watching people still find love, drink, dance, and celebrate in the chaos. He had a similar experience when he played a show in Čadca, Slovakia, a poor mining town where people, despite the bleak situation of a mine gone
bust, and a economy teetering on the edge of collapse, still managed to not only survive, but to really live. "The overarching theme of this record is seeing people in adverse conditions take matters into their own hands and still find the energy to go dancing or fall in love or create art," he explains. "I've started to get really frustrated with our complacency here in America and those feelings came out a lot on this album."
Although this may be Astronautalis' most aggressive album, to call it angry, or pessimistic, would be to miss the point. It is, in fact, an album about liberation. In a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral, there is a ritual of grief, that carries from the wake, to the service, to procession of the pall bearers out of the church. Each step of the way, the sorrow, and pain, escalates, soundtracked by the music of suffering. Heavy, gut¬wrenching, plodding dirges fill the air, as the funeral service, and the casket itself, spill out of the church, and into the streets. The mourners, and a full brass band follow along with the casket, as the pall bearers, carry the departed to the cemetery gates. The music guides the pace of the procession, while shaping the suffering of the mourners. And just when it seems as if the pain is becoming too much to bear, the suffering insurmountable, the casket reaches the cemetery gates, the band swings into the raucous celebration of "When the Saints Go Marching In", and the mourners "cut the body loose" as they leave the body to gravediggers, and they dance on down the street. The time for sadness left in their dust.
The scene of the album is set early with the gritty, glitchy opener "Kurt Cobain" which is as much a call to arms as it is an mission statement. Cut The Body Loose exists in a space between heartache and acceptance, and that duality is evident in songs like "You Know What It Is," which starts as a downbeat critique of music and pop culture in general before exploding into a joyful, horn¬driven celebration of life. Like life, there's plenty of inherent variety, which is why there's room for ominous, ethereal bangers like "Kudzu" or the piano¬driven, downbeat hip¬hop ballad "Boiled Peanuts,” an ode to his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.
"I feel like I really fell in love with hip¬hop again on this album," Astronautalis explains. "That was territory I tackled here that I was really scared to go to because I'm at the point where I could just write more songs about girls, but I didn't really want to do that again and wanted to see what would come out if I wrote from the heart."
As anyone whose seen him live knows, it's difficult to separate Astronautalis' music from his raucous performances, which are less cerebral than than used to be and currently favor a free¬for¬all full of freestyles and beats so infectious that you can't help it but get lost in the kinetic energy of it all. "For the longest time my inspiration for live shows were watching bands like Grandaddy or Bill Callahan and now I'm way ore interested in watching The Knife or gangster rappers getting totally nuts onstage," he explains. "To me that's way more exciting and it's also a
huge influence on this album in the sense that I want to write songs where I can make everyone jump up and down and sweat and get whiskey dumped over themselves to, you know?" In other words when Astronautalis commands the audience to "turn it up 'til it shakes the rafters" on "Running Away From God," it's not a metaphor, it's time to tear the fucking room apart.
On the surface, Cut The Body Loose centers around themes of loss, disappointment, and struggle but in the end, it is really about finding redemption, triumph and catharsis in the face of all of that sadness.
"The core of this album is the fact that the world is fucked in a lot of ways but instead of letting that crush you, you can use those circumstances to make a small change," Astronautalis says. "I'm not talking about recycling, I'm talking about finding joy in being good and happiness inside the framework of what can easily be a crushing amount of sadness you see in the world around you," he continues, "and exercise those demons and find an outlet for all of those feelings through my stories and experiences."
Having played thousands of shows all over the world and seen more than many of us will ever witness, it’s a perspective that's worth hearing out.