The Shape of No Shape

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No Shape is the fourth album from Perfume Genius, a.k.a. Mike Hadreas, and it continues an astonishing upward trajectory for the artist. Each Perfume Genius album has been somehow even better than the last (and he started strong). Hadreas is, to my mind, one of the best songwriters currently working, so efficient and exact as to make everyone else feel sloppy by comparison. He is particularly brilliant at using small sonic details and textures to enhance the different emotional colours in his songs; he has a great, intuitive understanding of how to best present each song, in terms of  things like instrumentation and mixing. One imagines all these songs being sketched out at the piano first, then later dressed up in different sonic ‘outfits’ until he finds the right one.

I want here to simply track through the ‘shape’ of the new album (which is masterfully sequenced) and unpack some of its themes.

We open with ‘Otherside’, which introduces, both sonically and lyrically, the idea of transcendence. Gentle piano is crashed through by a huge sheet of noise and choirs of voices. It is so dazzling – like a great burst of sonic sunlight – that it is almost impossible to hear. It is an experience of shapelessness – one can’t pick out shapes within it, but is presented with it as a single totality, a single blast of sound. The studio was apparently set up like a makeshift church during its recording, with all the backing vocalists sat in pew-like rows. I love the gorgeous, pregnant pause after the first “to the otherside” is sung, before the crash comes in. It is a moment of silence, which is itself a kind of shapelessness. Shapelessness is equated here with transcendence – an idea that rings throughout the album.

The songs that follow continually complicate any simple reading of this transcendence. These songs are not shapeless at all, but distinctly and powerfully shaped. And they are weird and wonderful shapes, with an emphasis on that ‘weird’. They are awkward shapes, queer shapes. They explore, sonically, Hadreas’s experiences as a gay man, his not fitting into the normative ‘shapes’ of society.

The next three songs, from ‘Slip Away’ to ‘Go Ahead’, all project a sense of confidence in one’s shape, whatever it may be. These are songs that celebrate that which doesn’t fit, the not-fitting. ‘Slip Away’, in particular, sounds triumphant, like someone knocking down every wall that’s thrown up to try and box them in, something captured in its glorious video. “Don’t let them break the shape we take”, Hadreas sings, however uncomfortable it may make the anonymous ‘them’. These are songs about transcending others’ limited or warped ideas of who you are. Confronting those who dismiss your ‘shape’ as invalid: “baby, hold on and stare them down” (‘Just Like Love’).  Enforcing this feeling of confidence are the prominent sounds of drums, both literally (the wobbly, warped drums of ‘Go Ahead’; the galloping drums of ‘Slip Away’) and lyrically: “every jump, every single beat, they were born from your body, and I’m carried by the sound.”

‘Valley’ is a tonal shift. The bridge is particularly powerful: “I hear the sound of a million drums with no beat, violins with no melody. I am sick with it: quiet.” The delivery of these lines is incredibly moving; reading them on a page can’t quite capture it. The “beat” from earlier cannot be heard; it is here a “no beat”. And the singer is tempted to try and throw off his body, his ‘shape’, for the ‘no shape’ of suicide. (“I don’t blame you for wanting out, I’m kind of close myself”). The reference to violins recalls the song ’17’ from Put Your Back N 2 It, in which the singer’s body is rejected, stuffed inside a violin, covered in semen (“I am done, I am done with it”), an idea also found in ‘No Good’ from Too Bright (“the body’s no good”). This oscillation between celebration of the queer body and rejection of it is complex to read, but feels very true to lived experience. It is one of the defining qualities of Hadreas’s songwriting, and one of the sources of its emotional resonance and power.

Album centrepiece and highlight ‘Wreath’ sees both of these contrary desires being explored simultaneously. It is an extraordinary piece of music. The singer longs to break out of the shape of his body into shapelessness: to “burn off every trace”, to “hover with no shape”. The music itself seems to be trying to break out of its own shape; it exists just on the edge of transcendence without ever quite breaking through. It is almost exhausting to listen to, a four minute song which seems to exist entirely within a pregnant, tension-filled pause, like the one in ‘Otherside’. The repeated image of “a wreath upon the grave” suggests again that death may act as one kind of transcendence; and yet, the singer also wants to stay alive, “to feel the days go by”. He wants both simultaneously. To “feel the sun go down”, to “feel the sun come up”.

The next few songs continue to seek transcendence in other places. ’Every Night’ and ‘Choir’ take place in another almost-shapelessness, this time that of the night, the cloak of darkness. But the songs depict an insomniac: “quiet, I brace for the drift… still I’m up” (‘Every Night’); “I can’t dream, something keeps me locked and bodied” (‘Choir’). Sleep here is another obliteration, another otherside, but it’s one he again can’t quite break through into. ‘Die 4 You’ instead seeks this transcendence through sex, specifically asphyxiation fantasies. The possibility of losing one’s shape in the shape of another, an other, a lover. “Limit every second left till I’m off balance”.

But then this is immediately followed by ‘Sides’, which both musically (it’s a duet with Weyes Blood) and lyrically, depicts the separation of two lovers as two separate beings, unable to fully merge or melt into each other. (That is, remaining as ‘sides’). “Sometimes you forget to just let me in a bit”, Hadreas sings; “lately baby I’ve been hiding away”, Mering echoes. The title ‘Sides’ again suggests a fixed shape, its physical boundaries.

The remaining songs (‘Braids’, ‘Run Me Through’) continue to dwell on and attempt to resolve this dilemma: that is, the possibility of owning one’s own shape while also wanting to transcend it, to become ‘no shape’; the desire to lose oneself in the other, or sleep, or sex, or death, but the impossibility of fully doing so.

The resolution comes, finally, in the last song. It is love. A real, imperfect relationship. Sometimes you splinter apart and become sides; sometimes you manage to become one shape, or even (briefly) no shape at all. That is, sometimes you manage to achieve a brief transcendence: “did you notice we slept through the night?”. The song is an existential cry: “I’m here, how weird.” To name it specifically after ‘Alan’, Hadreas’s partner, gives it a particular poignancy; so many of Hadreas’s songs are about queerness, or explore gay relationships and sex in a more poetic or general sense, but here we get close to meeting the actual man in his life, the man all this beauty is for.

A Steel Sea Lapping

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Latent in the language of pop is the language of fishing: ‘catchy’, ‘ear worm’, ‘hook’. Generally these descriptors are used in a positive sense, but there is a kind of violence in them too. After all, the listener is the fish in the analogy. Unaware of the trap. Or aware of it, but happy to go along anyway, to submit to the violence of the trick. Like believing in an illusion.

I am talking about a certain kind of melody here. It is obtrusive; it sticks in your mind and is irremovable. You know the kind. “I want something just like the shape of you under my umbrella.” These kinds of melodies, laced throughout the thin waters of mainstream (main-stream) radio, dangling like so many baited hooks, are designed to ‘catch’ our attention. To catch our mind’s ear and stay caught there. Sweet at first, offering an immediate gratification (a juicy worm) that makes us want to listen; then later, replaying over and over in the mind, whether we want to hear them or not. Thus making us want to hear them again. To jump back again and again into the same stream, even though we know of the barbs hiding under the surface.

For a few months earlier this year I was working in a sweet shop, and was subjected to the trickle of lukewarm sewage that is Kiss FM for hours on end. I don’t know what any of the vile bilge in the top 40 is called, but I now seem to recognise every ugly burble of melody that doppler-blasts by me in cars. And every time I do, these songs get stuck in my head again.

This might not be such a problem if the lyrics weren’t so troubling. Nearly all these songs are about sex, coached in oh-so-subtle metaphors like “I want to see your peacock” or “I just want to be part of your symphony”. Or, increasingly, no metaphors at all, as in the utterly cringeworthy: “I’d like to get to know you better, I’d like to get under your sexy body”. (One longs for the quaint days of “I wanna hold your hand”.) But the kind of sex this music depicts is hollowed out and empty. It takes something sacred and mysterious and makes it cheap. This music teaches us as much about real sexual experience as pornography does: which is to say, nothing at all. Sometimes – as on the deeply troubling ‘Blurred Lines’, a song that suggests it’s OK for sexual consent to be ambiguous – the things it does try to teach us are incredibly damaging.

This combination of bluntly effective melodic hooks and sordid bastardisations of love and sex are what I dislike so much about mainstream pop. It has become somewhat fashionable in indie circles to profess one’s love for pop music. I don’t understand why. It is not that I am am anti-melody, or even anti-catchy-melody, but that modern pop music seems to me so manipulative in its use of it. Its simple melodies and thick, electronic textures have the same appeal as junk food: they taste (kind of) good but make you feel sick afterward. Most of these songs give me a headache. Their lurid, insistent colours and overt sexual content place these manufactured products in the same circle of hell as TV adverts, which use the same cheap tricks. One can’t not listen; one can’t not look.

But enough ranting. I am finished swimming in these streams. Shower like a horse, I’m done.

Let me seek an antidote.

Ambient music is the opposite of pop music. If pop music positions the listener as the fish, then ambient music positions them as the fisher. That is, afloat on a sea of sound, fishing for meaning within it. This music will only exist in the moment it is played; it is impossible to recall afterward. It also, in its tendency to drift into the background, requires effort to actually listen to it, the opposite of the pop music that forces you to hear it whether you want to or not.

Chuck Johnson’s Balsams, from earlier this year, and Daniel Lanois’s Goodbye to Language, from September last year, are ambient records made almost entirely from the sounds of the pedal steel guitar. This is a strange proposition, for the pedal steel is usually used to add accents and resonances to other instruments, particularly within country music. But in these strange, singular works, it unassumingly takes centre stage.

Balsams is the purer of the two. The only accompaniment to the pedal steel here are some deep bass tones, occasionally throbbing softly from somewhere deep down in the ocean. (I think of sonar pulses from a whale). The steel, though, is the sparkling, sunlit surface, upon which the listener drifts. Melodies slowly, imperfectly repeat, like gentle waves. Many have an aching sadness to them. The way a pedal steel can slide one note into another, blurring the boundaries between them. ‘Balsam’ is ‘balm’ is ‘calm’.

Goodbye to Language is a stranger, more discomforting beast. Lanois on pedal steel is joined by Rocco DeLuca on lap steel, so immediately we have a sense of things colliding and coexisting: ‘overlapping’ rather than ‘lapping’. The compositions themselves are also much shorter and more unsteady than Johnson’s, more likely to alter or stop without warning. The waters are murkier and choppier, the waves shredded and disturbed by changing winds. The two steel guitars are augmented throughout by subtle digital manipulations, bits of detritus floating in on the surface.

Both albums require you to make your own meanings as a listener. Both also invite you to lose yourself in them. Johnson’s music projects such a huge sense of stillness and calm that one feels one could drift there forever. Lanois’s, meanwhile, closes quickly round you, and won’t stop shifting and changing, so that one can’t swim away. Both, though, are in their own way meditative. Neither will hook you, or catch you. They are complex, and mysterious, and require you to make time for them. They are fundamentally quiet, in a world full of too much loudness.

Quarterfaves: Apr-Jun

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The last three months have been very busy, both personally (I got married!) and musically (just impossible to keep up). There have been some high profile releases I won’t cover here (Arca, Perfume Genius, Fleet Foxes) but which which will likely feature pretty high up on my end-of-year list. (I blogged a little about the Arca already; the Fleet Foxes will almost certainly be my album of the year). Instead, as is the spirit of this ‘Quarterfaves’ thing, I want to highlight a few recent releases I’ve enjoyed that might have slipped under your radar, or else been forgotten already in the always-too-quick deluge of other new music.

Spirit of the Beehive – Pleasure Suck

If you like indie music and haven’t given this a spin, you should. It’s noisy and restless and messy, and just packed full of great little hooks which are never quite left to settle. That can make it a quite frustrating listen at times, but it also makes it an engaging one – the ‘pleasure’ of the hooks is ‘sucked’ out by the constant forward motion of the songcraft, like the end of a hoover sucking on your skin. (Which is strangely pleasurable in its own way of course.) This came out around the same time as Feist’s also-excellent album Pleasure, so the two are connected in my mind. They are antithetical approaches to the same theme: Feist is light and breezy where Beehive are dark and claustrophonic. I have listened to the two back-to-back a few times, and they make oddly fitting bedfellows.

Dali Vision – Hell on Earth

The bandcamp page for this describes it as “not-quite-easy listening – a kind of post- apocalyptic lounge,” which is pretty apt. It has that quality I like in music of being unshowily and quietly ambitious. It takes you places, surprises you, envelops you in new sound worlds, without making a big deal out of it. For a record called Hell on Earth, it is startlingly pretty. Hell on earth really sounds rather lovely. But maybe that’s the point? It’s alluring, but also just slightly unsettling, like the rug is going to be pulled from under you any moment. Which it never quite is. It’s always just about to. That makes it, for all its otherworldliness, an oddly rather 2017 record.

Karima Walker – Hands in Our Names

If you liked Julie Byrne’s record from earlier this year, then you might enjoy this, which has that similar feeling of total calm and peace. (I don’t want to overstate the similarities, as their approaches are pretty different, but there’s a mutual vibe I think.) Hands moves fluidly from simple folk songs sung on acoustic guitar into more abstract collages of sound and back again. The collaged moments are full of natural sounds, but also tape loops, droning bell-like tones, and washes of static, adding textural and tonal interest. The title track moves imperceptibly from two voices singing in rounds into overlapping echoes of the same voice, which is a particularly lovely movement – it reminds me a little of both Mountain Man and Julianna Barwick.

Luka Productions – Fasokan

Those who know me well know I love the music of Mali; but this record doesn’t really sound like anything else I’ve ever heard from the country. It sounds like a dreamy sci-fi, all space age drift and floating ambience, with sprinklings of more traditional Malian rhythms over the top. Luka is a beatmaker for local rappers, who apparently queue up outside his small studio in Bamako for his services. But this feels like a much more personal project. It has a slight New Age vibe to it; it is music that seeks to heal.

Clap! Clap! – A Thousand Skies

So much stylistic ground covered on this thing. It never stays in one place for long. Part of that is the number and variety of collaborators that head ‘clapper’, Italian beatmaker Cristiano Crisci, brings on board, lending different tracks different flavours. But it also comes from Crisci himself, who has a clear passion for sounds from around the world, and for blending live instrumentation with head-spinning electronic sounds.

Jlin – Black Origami

I mean this is insanely good and will probably make my year-end list so I won’t say too much here, other than the observation that this would make very strange but possibly quite excellent music to excercise to.

Laurel Halo – Dust

This only just came out last week, so not a lot of constructive things to say right now other than… Hmmmm…. Oooooh…. Aaaah…. (I think it’s her most confounding and interesting release yet. She’s just brilliant.)

 

 

 

The Instrumental

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It would be an easy record to put on in the background, this largely instrumental collection. Mirror of Wind, the new album from Jasper Lee, is full of sounds that feel ornamental, decorative: flutes flutter, strings swoop, mallets meander up and down scales. It is a kaleidoscope, its colours rotating, beautiful and meaningless. Listening to it, it very much strikes me as as fundamentally ‘instrumental’ music, in that it delights in the sounds of instruments, in the process of using different tools and gizmos and thingamabobs to make noises. Lee even builds his own instruments: his pyraharp looks like an upside down end table.

There is also something in the tone and structure of these pieces that reminds me of a mid-album instrumental in a song cycle. The tracks are generally song-length, and have an incidental feel to them, as though transitioning between more fixed points like verses and choruses, vocals and lyrics, things which act as pins in the fabric of songs. Only here there are no pins, just transitions and flutter. In such a landscape, the two tracks that do have vocals – ‘Quaint Gothic Spring’ and ‘Milk of Air’ – become bridges themselves, vocal interludes among the instrumentals, an inverse of the traditional order.

I keep thinking about this word, ‘instrumental’, and what it means. In reference to music, it is most often used to contrast a particular passage or piece with the vocally-led songs surrounding it. I’m thinking of tracks like ‘Green Arrow’ off of Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, or ‘Alma’ off of Grizzly Bear’s Shields, which would be described as ‘instrumentals’ between songs. The ‘instrumental’, then, is a bridge, a path, a transition. It takes its meaning from the things (words, songs) that surround it. There is little need to describe the music of Chopin or Duke Ellington or Toumani Diabate as ‘instrumental’, for there is no contrast to be drawn.

Yet it is also a word used to describe music which sounds like it could have vocals, but doesn’t: the post-rock of Mogwai and Do Make Say Think, for example, or the circling acoustic guitar workouts of James Blackshaw and William Tyler. Notably, these are all artists who occasionally deploy vocals, but generally speaking don’t. They invert the usual ratio of vocal tracks to instrumentals, and in doing so, challenge the association of ‘instrumental’ with ‘interlude’. For there is nothing transitory about the tracks without vocals here: rather, they are the main event.

What interests me in Jasper Lee’s music is that, while almost all of the tracks are instrumental, they have an interlude-like quality that is still very much present. Mirror of Wind is like a whole album full of interludes. It feels almost entirely incidental, oddly light and buoyant. It relocates the meaning of the instrumental interlude to within the interlude itself, rather than in the pieces it transitions to and from.

 

Any binary we might draw between instrumentals and non-instrumentals is complicated by apparently instrumental music which heavily incorporates vocals. A recent example is Arca, an artist who makes predominantly instrumental music, but who on his new self-titled record brings his voice front and centre. Arca, the record, is dominated by the presence of Ghersi’s voice, which is by turns frail and bruised and confident. Yet though the emphasis is on singing rather than beats, as in his previous work, it still feels like an instrumental album. Part of this, I recognise, is my own inability to understand Spanish, and thus my treating the vocals as merely another sound in the music’s fabric. This is an important point to note – the degree to which music is instrumental is partially determined by the position of the listener. Indeed, context is everything here – the same album might be ‘instrumental’ if I put it on in the background and ‘non-instrumental’ if I listen to it closely.

And yet, I don’t think it is unfair to say that Arca’s voice is a material in Arca in the way that beats were a material in Mutant – that is, something to be mutilated. The voice is an instrument of both sonic and emotional exploration. The hallmark of Arca’s music is its bodiless – his mangled electronics have always evoked bruised and damaged bodies. That is refined here by focussing on one part of the body in particular: the throat, itself an instrument. And the manipulations are mostly done not with electronics, but in the way Ghersi stretches and warps his syllables as he sings. One thinks of Bjork (something of a mentor for Arca) and her all-vocal album Medulla. Indeed, while ‘a cappella’ music is surely, by definition, the conceptual opposite of ‘instrumental’ music, the affect of the two on the listener is oddly similar. The non-instrumental ‘song’ is perhaps a product of the interaction between ‘vocals’ and ‘instruments’, as two separate but equally present components. To remove one entirely, or to mesh the two, as Arca does, until they are indistinguishable, is to make the music ‘instrumental’.

 

The music of Forest Swords, whose new album Compassion was released this month, is also, like Arca, full of margins being blurred: the ancient past with the present, the organic with the synthetic, and the vocal with the instrumental. Clipped vowel sounds drift through this music, as fungal spores spread a species through a woodland. The spread of ideas. Blood filling a mouth. It is a fox, feasting on the carcass of a rabbit. The other day I had to brake hard when a fox – an urban fox – appeared suddenly, its quick, slinking body inches from my front left tire.

Is this instrumental? Am I writing instrumentally now?

The record Compassion is not a record of compassion, but an instrument of it, that is, something that enables or allows for it, that becomes instrumental in the delivery of it. (At least, one senses that this is the hope – why else would you call your record Compassion?) Confusingly, the word ‘instrumental’ is also sometimes used in a sense akin to ‘indispensable’ or ‘necessary’, but that is not how I mean it here. These sounds are obviously not prerequisites for compassion: rather, they are offered as potential tools for it. But the question remains of how they might act as such – how could a few instrumentals become instrumental in the delivery of actual, real world good? These are not protest songs, optimistically strummed and sung. They are just patches of smeared, ‘raw language’. Untranslatable, how could they ever translate into action?

And yet, of course, they can, and do. Music has a profound, mysterious effect on us. It is our universal language. Ideas conveyed purely through the form of instrumentals are often more powerful than the songs around them. They are pure expression. Among songs sung in the baggy clothes of words that never quite fit, instrumentals are naked, with all the attendant associations of nakedness: purity, rawness, sexuality, vulnerability. The music touches us: it puts its instruments inside our naked bodies. It is surgery. It cuts and shapes us. Compassion is a heart transplant.

There is a contradiction, then, between the instrumental as incidental and the instrumental as incendiary; between the instrumental as wallpaper and the instrumental as contact paper. It is somehow both more distant from us and more close to us than the sung song. I am still unable to reconcile this contradiction in my mind, and perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it is the tension rising from it than is generative of interesting instrumental music.

22 Reactions, A Million Questions

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1

[on first hearing the “extended” pre-release singles]

Bit short, aren’t they?

 

2

[on prettiness]

The music Bon Iver makes is undeniably pretty, and at first that is all I can hear: the prettiness. Everything here is mixed perfectly, and sounds gorgeous on the ears. From the moment the guitar first comes in on ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, like sudden cool water on a hot day, the music is lush and twinkling and brightly melodic.

Yet the narrative seems to be, swirling around the internet, that this is a radical new sound for the Bon Iver project, that this music is somehow challenging and difficult. “Not since Kid A has an album so superb pushed away and pulled closer its audience, simultaneously and with such aplomb,” says Pretty Much Amazing. “22, A Million captures personal crisis and resolution better than any record this century,” says The Line of Best Fit.

How to square this absurd hyperbole with how pretty it all sounds? Does this music really feel all that challenging? The songs, granted, take non-linear paths through various different fragments – but then, this is nothing all that new. There are vocal effects and synthesisers – again, nothing all that ‘out there’. And I can’t hear, at first, past all the pretty noise of the music, and all the blabbering hyperbolic noise of the internet; I can’t hear how, underneath all that, this is an interesting record, this is a challenging record, though not in the ways everyone thinks it is.

 

3

[on the way to the pub with a friend]

He says to me, what do you think of the new Bon Iver record, and I say oh, oh it’s really underwhelming isn’t it, and he says yeah, and I say I was just bored listening to it, and he says, oh God, by the end I just wanted it to be over already, and I say I know, right, and he says it’s funny, it’s so short but it feels so long, because there’s just no variation, and I say that was my experience exactly, I couldn’t believe how long it felt, it just went on and on, like the end of House of Flying Daggers where the woman keeps dying and then coming back to life just to die again, and I was like just kill me now already.

 

4

[on Bon Iver and Coldplay]

Take Viva la Vida, an album which borrows elements from a range of more interesting, more challenging music – My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead, The Velvet Underground – and translates them into a pop context, makes them accessible for a broader audience of people who maybe (shock! horror!) haven’t heard My Bloody Valentine or Radiohead or the Velvet Underground before. Is that an appropriate touchstone here? On 22, Bon Iver combinine a number of elements from recent underground music – the aggressive textures of experimental hip hop, the warped structures of witch house and vaporwave – and bubble them down into something that sounds really nice and melodic, that functions as incredibly pretty sonic wallpaper. And there’s a place for that. It’s not inherently bad. But it’s not earth-shattering.

 

5

[on the attack]

I want to like it, but I can’t get past those clunky, noun-dense lyrics, words that feel like they’re trying really hard to be meaningful and failing. It’s as though Vernon’s teenage diary-scrawls of Ashbery-lite are somehow more interesting than anyone else’s, and deserve to be carefully preserved through flashy lyric videos and Genius annotations.

And I can’t get, either, past those vocals, the way he sings so seriously, which only heightens how silly the lyrics sound. It hardly makes a difference whether he’s piling on the vocoders or singing nakedly, it all sounds so incredibly earnest. But earnest to what end? What are we supposed to make of this music? What is it supposed to mean?

And I can’t get, either, past those stupid, pretnentious track titles, with their hashtags, and their irregular numbering, and their random capitalisations, and their ∞s and ʇs and ∑s and ◊s.

And I can’t get, either, past how unstructured and sloppy everything is, how little thought seems to have gone into the sequencing, how under-baked the ideas feel, how little the songs seem to build in any meaningful way.

And I can’t help feeling, at the end of my first couple of listens, that it’s all a load of insufferable, nonsensical shit. It’s pretty shit, no doubt, but it’s still pretty shit.

6

[on the cover]

Symbols dissolved of their power, patterning the black wallpaper, thrown together as though they all basically meant the same thing.

 

7

[on other versions of this record that might have existed]

A more experimental 22, with more cracked, fractured instrumental backdrops, glitches, hiccups, detritus, digital coughs. A longer, wilder 22, sprawling out to a symbolic 22 tracks, covering even more stylistic ground. A softer, more pastoral 22, without all the digital manipulations, without all the crazy track titles, without the judder of ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ breaking the quiet aura. A more varied, pacier 22, with more tracks like ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ bringing up the tempo in the back half.

Would any of these albums be ‘better’? Would any of these albums be more ‘interesting’?

 

8

[on a train]

I’m on a train on the way to visit my future parents-in-law, half an hour left of the journey, and I find myself scrolling through my little screen, looking for something short enough to listen to, when I find the Bon Iver record, downloaded for ‘offline listening’ from a streaming service. I’d forgotten it was there. I hadn’t planned to listen to it again – I thought I’d made up my mind on it. But on the cramped and noisy train it feels just right: loud and processed enough to be heard above the carriage’s murmur, but quiet and calming enough not to stress me out any more. (The smallest bowl of porridge.)

That first track really is very pretty, isn’t it? But it’s also more than pretty, I think. It’s sad. It’s really fucking sad. It’s about time and how everything can suddenly end without warning. It’s about insecurity and the feeling of trying to connect with someone – to ‘speak into their silence’.

And then, shudder, we’re suddenly at ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’, and that production really is very nice, isn’t it? But it’s also more than nice, I think. It’s restless and feverish (“fever rest“, he keeps calling for) and then it shifts and opens up a little space into which he sings and then it crashes back in and it “wraps me up“.

And then it’s ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’ and it’s not just a parody of ‘Woods’ anymore, it’s its whole own thing, and the odd harmonies stack up amongst all these lovely, tiny silences, and the line ‘turn around you’re my 18’ is inexplicably moving.

And then it’s ‘33 “GOD”’, which has far more going on in it than I remember, and again it’s the silences that get to me, or the near-silences, the way they’re created by distorting the fabric of the song, like the unexpected pocket into which Fionn Regan sings “find God, and re-li-gi-on”.

And then, yes, it maybe loses its way a little from here, the sequencing goes all a bit weird, and the tempo doesn’t seem to vary, though the songs are still much better than I remember them, and still there are these little silences, these little pockets, which burst through the songs and are stirringly beautiful, and I think why didn’t I hear these before? Is this even the same album?

 

9

[on commas]

All three Bon Iver albums have a comma in the title, and in each case it acts to contrast something small against something large. Here we have 22 next to A Million. The use of numerals for the former emphasises it as a finite and specific amount. The use of words for the latter makes it seem comparatively unspecific, tossed off – a million years old, a million miles away, a million times. It seems really to mean ‘infinite’, or ‘uncountable’. (“The days have no numbers…”). It’s the same pattern as his first album: For Emma (a specific person is addressed), Forever Ago (an infinite time ago). Placed between them, the second album – Bon Iver, Bon Iver – takes on the same pattern. Reading it through the album’s theme of place, we read it as: city, state. Or perhaps, reading it in the wake of the previous album’s origin story being endlessly retold, as: Bon Iver (the person), Bon Iver (the myth).

 

10

[on the stroke of midnight]

Or maybe a few minutes after. I can’t sleep. I put on the record again, only this time I start from track five, from where it gets all quiet and samey. The gentle guitars of ‘29 #Strafford APTS’ sound like the old, cabin-dwelling Bon Iver, only the surface texture is different, like we’re listening through a wiretap in the room. Without the comparatively brazen opening four songs, ‘666 ʇ’ doesn’t feel like a ballad but a surge, its drums standing out more in the mix, its climax more apparent. And then the last four tracks alternate between genuinely strange, almost abstract numbers (‘21 M◊◊N WATER’ and ‘____45_____’) and two songs that feel like album closers. The first, ‘8 (circle)’, is a cousin of ‘Beth/Rest’; the second, ‘00000 Million’, the actual closer, is an evolution of it. It is also a refutation of the numerology that has haunted the rest of the album, and a very moving contrast between musical warmth and lyrical coldness: “if it harms me, it harms me, it’ll harm me, I let it in“.

Wow. These songs are crushing. They are mesmerising. Where did they come from?

 

11

[on the fifth, sixth, seventh listen…]

And on until the listens are uncountable, until they blur into one another, until they “have no numbers”, at which point we are beyond reactions or presumptions and into actual hearing.

 

12

[on the album’s structure]

22structure

 

13

[on puzzles]

There is a kind of addictive quality to its shortness and its incompleteness, like a puzzle you keep wanting to go back to, to try and piece it together, to crack its code, though the conclusion of this album, if it has one, is surely that not all codes can be cracked.

 

14

[on numerology]

The repeated ‘soon, soon’ sounds like ‘two, two’, that is, 22.

The sides of two five-facing dice add up to 10, which is also binary for 2.

The area code of Central/North Wisconsin is 715.

In 3 minutes and 33 seconds you can listen to ‘33’ which is also the age Jesus died.

29 is a mystery.

The number of the devil is 666.

The number of God is 777, three sevens, which when multiplied together make ‘21’.

‘8’ is eighth is two circles is infinity on its side.

45 is one plus two plus three plus four plus five plus six plus seven plus eight plus nine and ‘45’ is ninth and nine is four plus five, is ‘____’ plus ‘_____’.

When the number 10 is placed at the beginning of the tenth song, ‘00000 Million’, it reads 1,000,000, that is: ‘a million’.

None of this tells us anything. Or it tells us everything.

 

15

[on piano]

 

16

[on and on]

Why do we change our minds about things? What’s different about this record now than when I was ranting to my friend at the pub? Did I really compare this to Coldplay?

 

17

[on my ears it’s landing]

It is as though the music I am hearing now is actually different than the music I was hearing before…

Which suggests that what we hear is completely subjective…

Like when you listen to something with someone else in the room, and you hear it through their ears…

Or you cover your ears with your hands, and it sounds like it’s underwater…

It lands on my ears and it wriggles around and it burrows in…

 

18

[on marks and symbols]

A review, like a work of art, is a kind of mark-making – the impression made on the reviewer is remade on the object from which the impression came. But the work does not mark itself – the mark is made possible only by the subjective and arbitrary circumstance of the reviewer. The mark therefore reveals something of the reviewer. The reviewer’s fingerprints are left smudgily on the work. The reviewer is a kid with a new notebook, scrawling doodles on the front cover.

A symbol is a kind of mark, too, but one that behaves differently from the mark-making of the individual artist or reviewer. A symbol is a collaborative space of collaborative meaning. Using a symbol, we inhabit it temporarily, participate in it, and then leave it. The symbol is not less arbitrary, necessarily, than the mark, but it is less circumstantial, relying instead on repeated circumstance, repeated use, through which it accrues its meanings. In some sense, then, it does mark itself, in that it contains all of its impressions and implications within itself, rather than in the moment of its use (that is, the temporary moment of impression, the interaction between the marker and the marked).

In 22, A Million, though, symbols behave like the personal marks of the artist. Its cover is a kid’s new notebook, scrawled upon, a treasure trove of personal mythologies. “Sixes hang in the door”, the occult made into mere decoration. Crucifix and crescent, trefoil and triskelion, quincunx and caduceus, ankh and emoji: they all become deposits of personal memories and associations. They mean no less and no more than “fuckified”.

 

19

[onomatopoeia]

There have been times listening to this I’ve been momentarily convinced it’s the best record I’ve heard in years. But still it is easier to say why I didn’t like it initially than it is to say why I do now. It is easier to rant than it is to praise, even playing devil’s advocate.

Good art reduces us to blathering, blabbering wrecks.

“What is it supposed to mean?” I cried.

I might as well oink or meow or quack or twit-twoo. Sooon. Twooo.

 

20

[on the feeling that whatever is being grasped at here, in this album, in this review, it is always just out of reach, always just on the tip of the tongue, clutched at but never quite held, yearned for but never quite…]

 

21

[on the infinite]

Every moment is finite, counted, but is, within itself, infinite.

 

22

[a million questions]

Does this music disappear on impact? Does it sound better in my imagination or in my headphones? Do I even like this? What does “fuckified” actually mean? What direction could this project possibly go from here? Why is the number 22 so important to Justin Vernon? Why is the number 256 so important to me? What colour is the bottom of the ocean? What would this sound like at a funeral? When did people discover clouds are actually made of water? Why is the moon associated with witchcraft? Do religions have any truth to them, or are they just empty rituals? Is it better to plan things out or be spontaneous? If you played this record in the woods and only Kanye was around to hear it, would he make some sweet ass beats out of it? Are coincidences meaningful? How do they make cornflakes? What is the history of the symbol of the ouroboros? How many atoms are there in the universe? Should I keep trying to understand? Should I stop?