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Nevermen is a leaderless trio made of Tunde Adebimpe, Adam “Doseone” Drucker, and Mike Patton. They are artists of a certain distinction who’ve made name by way of sonic fearlessness, singular talent, and an ability to capture both adoration and imagination while hurling good noise at the void. This is neither side-project nor supergroup; it’s merely meant to be — a years-in-the-making partnership in which these men shared all duties, discovering their collective sound with the sort of glee and freedom usually reserved for first-timers. Amid this wild, weird churn of rock, pop, rap, soul, and other, it’s shockingly easy to lose track of who’s singing at what moment, and that’s the point: to quote Tunde/Adam/Mike in song, “The frontman digests its self.” Nevermen, the album, finds these three giants shredding their egos to get at the heart of why they do what they do, to explore the hopes and fears and wins and losses of anyone who carves career out of what started as dream.
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The origins of Nevermen lie in its members’ legacies. Adebimpe is the founding singer/co-producer of TV on the Radio, a band that puts creativity first and never makes the same album twice. He was a key player in the early-aughts Brooklyn art-rock explosion, and has brought his proclivity for punk-fed psychedelic soul to work with everyone from David Bowie to Tinariwen. As Doseone, Drucker helped define the sound and poetic bent of experimental rap. He cofounded the Anticon label and collective, and helmed canonical records from cLOUDDEAD, Themselves, Subtle, and 13&god. He is also one half of Crook&Flail, a duo assembled to score readings and films by graphic novelist Alan Moore. Patton’s been recognized as having the widest vocal range in pop. He is famously the singer of Faith No More, but the swath he’s cut through avant-garde music is unparalleled, via his bands Mr. Bungle, Tomahawk, and Fantômas; and collaborations with the likes of John Zorn and Björk. For all of these reasons, each Never-man was already a true fan of the other two.
Out of respect to the work, Nevermen was not to be an email affair. That’s why it’s taken seven years. In January 2008, Drucker met Adebimpe at his old Williamsburg warehouse. The place was marked for demolition, empty but for abandoned packing material and broken furniture, and freezing cold. They cranked space heaters and poured whiskey, ran tape and recorded for a week. They beat on doors, pipes, floors, and chests. They jammed on keyboards and drum machines. They fashioned poems from tour memories and newspaper headlines, and howled them at the high ceilings. You can still hear that space clearly in the album’s unvarnished parts. Most of the material, though, would be chopped and made into songs then sent to Patton. He had carte blanche to reimagine using his orchestra’s worth of odd instruments. Several in-person studio permutations followed, and slowly but surely, what was fat became lean, and what was muscle became tension cable. Adebimpe played heart; Drucker played mind; Patton played body. None but Nevermen touched the music.
The results are, as one would hope, reliably unpredictable. Opener “Dark Ear” pits stadium-worthy explosions of guitar and drum against moments of meditative calm. The three drive each other’s voices into new places — deeper, higher, more fluid, or more rhythmic — through a manicured bramble of styles and sounds. It’s everything they’ve ever done and nothing we’ve ever heard, all at once. And two songs later, on “Wrong Animal Right Trap,” they’re a different band entirely, smashing bubblegum melodies into some kind of gospel-punk framework, then rap-shouting à la Def Jam circa ’84. “Tough Towns” rides a distinct vibe — Swans’ symphonic post-rock surge meets Portishead’s trip-hop noir — and “Mr. Mistake” bounces on a plunderphonic groove, but Nevermen’s songs cross countless genres, held together by the incredible braid of voices that intersect and encircle them. The theme reveals itself in time, as lyrics about contracts, cameras, pride, and payment boil down to one line on “Fame II: The Wreckoning,” simply: “One day might you get to the flame of what you are?”
In coming together like this, though, Nevermen show us their mettle. For all of its introspection, the album often feels joyous, and not once cloistered or forbidding. This is inviting, immersive stuff, begging repeat listens and close reads. And, yes, it’s also a momentous meeting of adventurous and able minds — Adebimpe, Drucker, and Patton, at last occupying the same aural space. In honor of the occasion, they’ve teamed with Turner Prize-winning English artist Keith Tyson, the fourth Never-man, who’s custom-made not only all of the artwork for the project, but something special for 100 limited-edition versions of Nevermen. Each of those rare copies will feature a unique mix and master of the album, along with two extra songs — an attempt to honor the physical nature of music-as-art, and something for the most loyal heads.
Vinyl product photos: Michael Wilkin / The Vinyl Factory