To remix an old saw for the Internet age: Familiarity breeds a particularly nasty, exhausted sort of apathy—the burnout of overexposure to a brand, whether it be Hulu's fusillade of unchanging ads, Upworthy's smug click bait, or an artist's monomaniacal shtick. For a longtime devotee, the first few pages of Ian F. Svenonius' "Censorship Now!!" carry plenty of that checked out disappointment. A longtime D.C. indie-punk fixture, Svenonius has spent two books (2006's "The Psychic Soviet" and 2012's "Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group")—and 20 years as frontman for The Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, Weird War, and Chain and the Gang—mining a narrow melange of socio-musicological history, academic inquiry, and Marxist camp.
But while his arch purr of a voice still builds delightfully abstracted realpolitik from often "kooky" sources (sugar, documentaries, Ikea, the movie "Heathers"), "Censorship Now!!'s" early moments edge awfully close to self-parody. "We need censorship," the book's title essay declares, but it's a blustery whiff of a premise—the call for anti-capitalist rewiring seems oddly out of sync with his content, as lines of almost lyrical rage ("[t]he internet is an out-of-control chimera," for one) slam against insurrectionist irony ("Censorship until reeducation!") that would have felt cheap even in his Smash the State-tinged Nation Of Ulysses years. For the fans likely to pick up "Censorship Now!!," its opening gambit reads like recidivism at its most insidious: a dull rehash in the vein of, say, Weezer's 'Back to the Shack,' "Fuller House," or the mid-aughts Smashing Pumpkins "reunion."
Still, it's a tribute to the frontman's strange literary trip that his style, once "Censorship Now!!" hits its stride, provides new, unexpected mutations amid the formal deja vu. For one thing, his anger—usually coated in sardonic asides or cultural studies argot—has become palpable and more strikingly sincere. Where Svenonius was once happy to dress his j'accuse moves in hipster ennui, he allows himself to pound the jilted punk warpath this time around. Early highlight 'The Legacy Machine,' for example, launches a vicious critique of the punk scene's self-aggrandizing, legitimacy-chasing old age—one where Kickstarting self-biographers become a "[a] den of safecrackers turned into snitches" and the band docs' audiences, a casual crew of Netflix fiends he acidly notes "didn't care for the group as a living thing" but "as roadkill . . . deign to hang it on their wall," are ID'd with a sneer as "the squares [punks] used to despise." Elsewhere, 'All Power to the Pack Rats!: Ikea and Apple's War on 'Hoarders'' indicts the web's sleek, objectless meta-universe with righteous brio, celebrating the accumulation of "stuff" that TV shows like "Hoarders" pathologize and positing, with vexed resolve, "that things meant something once, that everything wasn't always a meaningless, equivocal post on Tumblr."
An edge has finally entered Svenonius' voice and, compared to "The Psychic Soviet's" cheeky essays on electroclash or "Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group's" cute seance-as-musicology bull session, "Censorship Now!!" can feel thrilling simply because its author seems invested in—and livid about—his ideas. But if Svenonius' frustration provides a welcome evolution of voice and vibe, the collection's real sea change is its embrace of academic rigor. Previously content to introduce an outré claim—"Music is bad for you," from 2010's Vice article 'On the Misuse of Music,' being the ur-example—and explore it with hobbyist glee, the frontman has raised his stakes here, burnishing his points with a sharpened sense of telling detail.
In 'The Twist: The Sexual-Repression Revolution and the Craze to Be Shaved,' a brilliant reflection on the relationship between individualistic dance fads and isolation, this arrives in the form of archival lists of mid-century dances (e.g. the Tennessee pimp walk, the frug, the tighten-up, etc.) and R&B also-rans; in Wikipedia appraisal 'True Origins of the Internet,' the wonkish ins and outs of 2012's SOPA legislation become fodder for a "kill your idols" take on web magnates. Even better, Svenonius has also learned how to convincingly go big: 'The Historic Role of Sugar in Empire Building,' a spiritual sequel to "The Psychic Soviet's" world-historical coffee chronicle 'The Bloody Latte,' presents the story of sugar as a Howard Zinn-style lost narrative, tracing the fraught journey of a product whose reign (and eventual ouster by high fructose corn syrup) dictated centuries of Western politics and war. While none of this explodes his previous work per se—the topics remain quirky, the concerns cultural studies-oriented, the politics caked in socialist ideals—it still reads like Svenonius 2.0, a smarter and more precise model.
All of this evolution, however, does throw the collection's weaker material into relief. If "Censorship Now!!" has a main flaw, it's that Svenonius has nailed down his bêtes noires and developed real expertise—a situation that is at cross purposes with the whole glib, faux-extemporaneous style he cultivated over the last two decades. Where a lack of basic nonfiction niceties (like citations and indexes) may have made sense in earlier books, it actively undercuts the meticulous breadth of "Censorship Now!!"; at times, the absence is almost profound, as it makes some of the book's goofier points feel undercooked ("The 'hook' must be destroyed," from anti-pop screed 'The Hook'), out of place ("Ikea wants couples to break up," from 'Pack Rats!'), or, as in his Sontag-biting takedown of pop art 'Notes on Camp, Pts. II & III,' ickily conspiratorial.
Now three books into a writing career, Svenonius has the scholarly chops, unique subcultural vantage, and reputation to be a new kind of public intellectual—an earthy alternative to university discourse, matching its brainy detachment with D.C. punk's searching, media-aware sensibility. The main trick, it would seem, is to slough off a decades-strong habit of Dylanesque ambiguity and code-as-subversion. Whether Svenonius can transcend that old routine remains to be seen, but at its best, "Censorship Now!!" provides a beguiling blueprint for moving forward.