We’ve spent the entirety of Iggy Pop’s rock ’n’ roll life poking at his abs, trying to figure out if he’s beyond human. In the public imagination, he’s the maniac Adonis who invented punk without even trying, then celebrated his world-changing achievement by rolling around in broken glass.
He survived, and now he’s 72, which leads us to believe he’s some kind of deity, even when his own lyrics tell us he’s something else. In song, he’s been a wolf, a bear, a snake, a mosquito, a “giant American tyrannosaur,” a lizard, “a laughing hyena run out of breath,” a moose, “a bull mongrel,” “a cartoon cat,” a dog, “your dog,” the “king of the dogs,” and, of course, “a streetwalking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.”
Self-knowledge runs heavy through that lyrical bestiary. Animals live their wildest lives doing whatever they please, but they stay alive by listening.
Iggy has always been listening, even in those deranged moments when he appeared to be flirting with death for our amusement. Each time he infamously rolled his naked torso through broken bottles or globs of Skippy, he was just a big, sexy eardrum, totally exposed. Now, having figured out how to listen to modernity with the entirety of his body, he hears everything. It’s his secret legacy. The feral listener.
He’s proving it with “Free,” a new album that began with deep-dives into the jazz of trumpeter of Leron Thomas and the purple hazes that guitarist Sarah Lipstate churns out under the name Noveller. When Iggy heard their music, he liked it so much he asked each musician to send some tunes that he could sing along with. In the liner notes, the maestro describes the process as something that “just kind of happened to me.”
He’s still all the way inside this music, though. In 2019, his voice sounds dark and deep, like an empty gas tank. Sometimes it growls, like an empty stomach. But instead of mutating into a hungry animal, Iggy haunts these new songs like a dignified spirit – which might make “Free” an exposition on death, or transcendence, or both.
Or maybe neither. It’s easy to get dizzy when you’re listening to Iggy Pop as closely as he’s listening to the rest of this damaged planet.
Iggy likes to tell a story about how he once fell in love with the space heater inside his parent’s Michigan trailer home. It made a crappy little sound that felt holy to him. He described it as “my first musical gift from God.”
He had similar childhood epiphanies whenever cars swooshed by on the neighboring highway, or when his father flicked on his electric razor. As a baby of the consumer age, Iggy’s first love was the incidental hum of machines. Later in his half-cooked 1982 memoir, “I Need More,” he wrote, “I’m sure the constant exposure to amplifiers and electric guitars, and hearing my own voice amplified, has altered my body chemistry, in which, after all, the life lives.”
We all like to pretend that there’s some kind of imaginary wall that separates our bodies from our brains, but Iggy has always known better. We absorb the totality of this noisy soundworld with all of our being – which is why the noise of the Stooges, the visionary punk-before-punk band that Iggy began marching around the Michigan tundra back in 1967, ended up altering so many body-brains forever.
This was a group that understood the inherent absurdity of rock ’n’ roll, yet still took its tacit mission to purge the dread, boredom and sexual frustration of an entire generation with heroic seriousness. “I am the world’s forgotten boy,” Iggy sneered in 1973, instantly making himself a champion to all contemporaneous weirdos and every iteration of punk to come.
As he slashed his way through the ’70s, his commitment to superficial dumbness – in the Stooges and beyond – made rock ’n’ roll feel so much smarter. He kept listening ferociously, soaking up all the wisdom and stupidity he could, showing us just how easily the two could coexist within a single song – the same way sparks of intelligence and smears of stupor commingle beneath our skulls at any given moment. By 1982, he had claimed his permanent spot as rock’s great dummy-poet, taunting the future with savage finesse: “In the space-age, the village idiot rules!”
Once the 21st century showed up, Iggy finally began listening for the one thing everyone had been promising him for his entire career: death.
In 2001, he addressed the issue over a strip-club metal riff: “Death is the best, better than all the rest of the dutiful lies in the rock paradise/Losses and wear and the texture of age adds a truth to the heart and a light to the face.” Eight summers later, heart still thumping, features still aglow, he imagined himself buried deep in the cool dirt. “It’s nice to be dead,” he sang in 2009. “It’s nice to be underground, free of the ugly sounds of life.”
Another decade has come and gone, and if Iggy is still keeping an ear out for death, he seems primarily focused on listening to his own living body in all its septuagenarian perishability. He knows the sound of his own voice better than ever before – many of the songs on “Free” are spoken in the same greasy grumble that he’s cultivated on his BBC radio show – and he’s outsourcing his mouth to other lyricists, perhaps so that he can hear himself more clearly.
The most extraordinary sound to escape his airways on “Free” comes during “Page,” an amorphous ballad that congeals around a vague declaration: “We’re only human, no longer human.”
Those lyrics were written by Thomas, his jazz collaborator, and on paper, they read like a lament for our doomed species. But they slosh around differently at the bottom of Iggy’s gas tank. His berserk vibrato sounds as if it’s quietly coming loose inside his throat, slipping out of rhythm, or even out of time itself.
He’s using his voice to bend a big existential question-mark overhead: What if death-transcendence-whatever isn’t about being released from the body so much as being released from time?
The cover of “Free” shows Iggy walking off into the sea, his back turned to us – a svelte, inky silhouette. The image would feel morbid if we didn’t know about his daily dips in Miami’s Biscayne Bay. He says that swimming every day helps him keep fit, and looking at his time-resistant physique, it’s working. But his mind is swimming, too. I like to think of Iggy Pop floating in that liquid immensity, happy and alive inside his own body-brain, listening for something that’s still too big to hear, even for him.