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Friday, August 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 72.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Aesop Rock piles on the complexity
Lost in the syntax
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Don't take an Aesop Rock rhyme word-for-word, left-to-right. Think of it as a dense verbal fiber made up of cryptic phrases and the veteran underground rapper's drawling flow. It's fun to really hear all those words crumpling and congealing together before zooming in and trying to decipher what he's actually saying. On Skelethon, his first proper solo album in five years, he admits to chasing something elusive and unwieldy, ending the song "Cycles to Gehenna" with the line "P.S., I wrote this on a self-destructing memo." He performs at the Barrymore Theatre July 27.

Aesop Rock brings heady darkness to his music, though he works through it in surprisingly nimble ways, especially on 2001's Labor Days. If there's an obstacle to liking his work, other than the sheer daunting weirdness, it's that some of his choruses feel sluggish compared to the activity in the verses. Judging from the choruses of the otherwise intriguing Skelethon tracks "ZZZ Top" and "Zero Dark Thirty," you'd think that he finds normal song structure a wearisome obligation.

But parts of Skelethon are refreshing. "Ruby '81" is made up of a single, long verse. Follow the thread and you'll be rewarded. It gradually coheres into a story about a dog who saves a little girl from drowning. Sometimes a song's chorus is more interesting when it's taken out of Aesop's peanut-butter mouth, especially when Kimya Dawson lends a nursery-rhyme hook to "Crows 1."

Call Aesop aloof and moody, but the playfulness and humor on Skelethon are hard to miss. (The final track is called "Gopher Guts.") With a line on "Grace," he even dismisses the idea of pouting, albeit via the usual thorny syntax: "You with the pretzeled arms, send your fabricated nausea my best regards." Or maybe that's just aimed at the song's subject, a kid refusing to eat his veggies and "staring at his green beans being a total pussy."

The new album's best song might be "Racing Stripes," a boisterously bouncing moment. It mostly concerns haircuts and learning "a couple great new curse words." So if he's sometimes lost in his verbiage, he hasn't forgotten the simple pleasures.

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