Biting Into the Core of ‘Apple’ by A.G. Cook

One of the snobbiest things fans do with music is micro-categorize everything. That hot album you like? That isn’t hip-hop, it’s conscious rap over melodic trap beats. You’re not into EDM — you’re into Gabber-style four-on-the-floor IDM. Over-classification of genre can be helpful when searching for more of the music you dig, but, on the other hand, it places more emphasis on a song’s aesthetic parameters than the actual music.

Album cover of AG Cook's Apple

Album cover of AG Cook's Apple. Courtesy of PC Music

One of the most baffling musical categorizations is the singer-songwriter classification. At the most basic level isn’t every musical artist at least some kind of singer as well as a songwriter? I mean, I understand why we have the classification. It bestows a traditional quality to an artist — there’s just something deep set in human DNA regarding the concept of a singer-songwriter. It could be rooted in the tradition of music sung around different fires around the world since the dawn of time, or the value of exchanging knowledge through story and song, maybe the recognition of the power inherent in expressing one individual thought and encompassing a universal human experience.

Regardless, the singer-songwriter designation grants an artist’s catalogue an almost legendary quality, each song adding to the mythology of an artist. Leonard Cohen strips to his underwear and slams his head against the ground drafting 80 verses for “Hallelujah.” Dolly Parton grinds out “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” in one day in her living room. Bob Dylan spits “Like a Rolling Stone” out after an exhausting English tour. Each of these artists are cemented in the canon of popular music, many of their songs will be enshrined in various traditions like top 100 lists, guitar lessons, etc. until the sun explodes, but they also highlight an interesting requirement in the singer-songwriter mythos — the type of instrument used.

While not solely designed for music, the laptop is today’s most ubiquitous instrument. Artists like Aphex Twin, Deadmau5, Skrillex, Kanye West, and approximately a million others have made entirely digital compositions that are just as moving as any guitar ballad — but they’re designated as producers, not songwriters. A. G. Cook is perfectly aware of this dichotomy, as he said in a recent New York Times interview: “Everyone has a laptop or an iPad or something. It’s the folk instrument of our era — it’s just everywhere. And you hear the person behind the electronic device.” The promotional art for Apple reflects that idea of the laptop as a folk instrument. Various pictures foreground Cook over a pastoral Montana backdrop, but there’s no guitar with him, just a laptop.

Photo of AG Cook on his laptop in a grass field

Photo of AG Cook by Alaska Reid, Julian Buchan. Courtesy of The Times

It’s a belief he’s held since the inception of his London-based record label PC Music. When they first hit the scene, their idiosyncratic version of pop music was divergently described by various perspectives as saccharine, ironic, sincere, self-consciously kawaii, vehemently art-schooled, K-pop, J-pop, iconoclast pop, etc. Each description (except ironic) garners some merit, but, as a whole, it was clear that PC Music had created its own aesthetic to the point where people would call similar artists PC Music regardless of label. But the name had an important distinction for Cook: “The label's called PC Music, which alludes to how the computer is a really crucial tool, not just for making electronic music but for making amateur music that is also potentially very slick, where the difference between bedroom and professional studio production can be very ambiguous,” Cook said in Tank Magazine.

Now, after seven years of waiting, Cook’s second debut album Apple blurs the lines between singer-songwriter and producer, pop and experimental, professional and amateur, all while maintaining an authentically personal touch. The album opens with two seemingly polar opposites: the sweet ‘90s guitar ballad “Oh Yeah” and the teeth-grinding facemelter “Xxoplex.” Where “Oh Yeah” summons Shania Twain summer road trip vibes, “Xxoplex” serves sweaty Berlin-basement point-blank strobe-light vibes. These two tracks are a perfect start to Apple, with the rest of the tracks moving between these two points. But, however incongruous those points seem, it’s all existing within Cook.’s realm of “pop” music. “Xxoplex” has the same pop song progression of intro-verse-chorus-verse-outro; it’s just abstracted into club music. It’s what makes the aesthetically terrifying sounds stick in your head for days.

Immediately after “Xxoplex’s” kick to the head, we’re treated to another sugary sweet guitar ballad “Beautiful Superstar” that complicates its accessible pop music veneer with layers of noise and distorted bass synths. The title itself is a reference to two of Cook’s earliest tracks “Beautiful” and “Superstar,” and the ending notes are actually taken straight from the end of “Superstar.” Apple is full of little nods to Cook’s career that will please long-time PC Music die-hards, but also make Apple feel like a logical evolution of everything he’s done so far.

“Animals” finds Cook covering a Oneohtrix Point Never song (the two previously collaborated under the Guys Next Door moniker), expanding the Garden of Delete track into a giant fugue. The sawtooth bass synth just cuts right through me and gives this track a massive feel, but the acoustic guitar and purposefully offkey manipulated vocals give the track a uniquely intimate feeling, like somebody is whispering a secret to you next to a rocket launch. The same effect is used to more extreme measures on “Jumper,” to the point where it sounds like Cook’s singing through a TikTok filter. It’s obviously synthetic, but it has a profound emotional effect that transcends any kind of authentic/synthetic instrument binary. It’s not electronic or pop or country or ironic or a pastiche, it’s just honest music. The same could be said of “Haunted,” which grows from a rootsy acoustic guitar riff with some indefinite vocals into a chorus of synthetic vocal tones, inflecting the same kind of emotion Cook did with his singing but one hundredfold.

The intimate vocals of “Animals” transition straight into the harsh noise intro of “Airhead.” “Airhead” is a classic PC Music-type beat right down to the guest vocalist QT. This is the most colourful song on the album by a mile, with its weird kalimba notes and synth builds of the first half leading into a section that sounds like the Murakami flower looks.

At its core, one of the most definable factors of PC Music is that it juxtaposes expressions of vulnerability with some weird computer noise that makes your body want to move. The singer in BIPP will make you feel better if you let her, Hannah Diamond spends all her time writing messages that you won’t read, and “Broken Flowers” is just a banger about crying. In this same fashion, the three-song run that concludes Apple is the greatest highlight. “Jumper” is an aspirational pop hit containing what might be the most personal lyrics about Cook’s music career, whereas “Stargon” sounds like learning everything in the world all at once for four minutes before transcending the need for facts. At first, it overwhelms listeners with its grating intro before that eventually falls behind in the mix to the gentle nord melody, light clapping, and just, well, cute sounds. “Jumper’s” aspirational feel leads into the overstimulation of “Stargon” and then it leads us to the end: the proudly vulnerable “Lifeline.” With its gated ‘80s drums, processed vocals, and absolutely infectious chorus, “Lifeline” wears its heart on its sleeve, jeans, and feet, ending the album on a beautiful, emotional, and triumphant note.

Apple is a beautiful album at the intersection of synthetic/authentic, songwriter/producer, and pop/experimental. There’s no other album really like it. While Cook’s sonic palette may echo some of the artists he’s produced for, his own individual approach to this album is entirely unique and the balladry is unlike any other in the PC Music wheelhouse. At its core, Apple is a singer-songwriter album written with a computer as its instrument. As a whole, it defies any kind of genre classification beyond “music” that pairs an acoustic guitar feel with a wall of noise. Whereas 7G offered up a smorgasbord to people champing at the bit for more Cook, Apple is far more digestible and cements Cook as one of the most interesting artists and producers currently working. With every new release we see, he makes his world a little clearer.

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