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.

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?

Ys, Ten Years On

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I remember seeing Ys, before I’d ever heard it, in the record collection of a couple in Holland, old friends of my parents we were visiting in Amsterdam. The cover intrigued me: a portrait of a woman in something like a milkmaid’s clothes, with a garland of flowers around her blonde, plaited hair. In one hand she holds a sickle, in the other a small pinned butterfly or moth in a gilded frame. On the windowsill, a blackbird holds a cherry in its mouth; beyond it, mountains, trees, a river. It looked like something from another century, another land, and I suppose I assumed it was Dutch, maybe an old record from the 70s, when ornateness and indulgence were more in fashion. In fact, this trip was in late 2006, so the record would have just been released a few months, perhaps weeks, beforehand.

A decade on, and the record, though I’ve listened to it hundreds of times now, still has the same sense of mystery and intrigue about it, the same promise of being whisked away to another land. We are there, straight away, at the start of ‘Emily’: “a rusty light on the pines tonight”, “old smokestacks and the bale and the barrow”, “a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky had been breathing on a mirror”. But with closer reading, we realise how these drunk-on-language, natural images are hauntingly personal: beneath the metaphors, Joanna (or the narrator) is telling the story of how her sister comforted her during a failed pregnancy. That she does this almost entirely through closely observed natural imagery is remarkable. Her aimlessness following the loss is evoked in the way “peonies nod in the breeze, and while they wetly bow, with hydrocephalitic listlessness, ants mop up their brow”. What an astonishing image! Later she sees salvation in the stars: “the way the ladle leads to a dirt-red bullet of light” turns out to be an image of the big dipper, recalling the little meteorite poem that serves as the song’s chorus. Underneath thick layers of allegory and embellishment are stark, cuttingly true feelings, lump-in-the-throat emotions.

Newsom has a taste for unusual-sounding words – “pleiades”, “kith”, “yarrow”, “lissome”, “diluvian” – which I imagine might grate for some people. Hers are dense lyrics, certainly, and require a great deal of close reading: chasing down each mystery often uncovers yet more mysteries. They are also open lyrics, allowing for multiple readings. Yet they do offer answers, too, and careful research reveals that they are far from random, or chosen purely for sound’s sake. The last lines of ‘Emily’ are as powerful, even without the music, as any poetry I’ve read: “Joy, landlocked in bodies that don’t keep, dumbstruck with the sweetness of being, till we don’t be. Told: take this, eat this”. That slightly awkward “don’t be” is as painful and undignified as death is. And in the apparently Eucharist-referencing last image is one of the common themes throughout these five songs: transformation.

The lyrics, though, are only one part of the puzzle. More astonishing still is Newsom’s voice. I can just about understand why people might have a problem with it on The Milk-Eyed Mender, where she does tend to yelp and wail a little unpredictably (though I think it’s beautiful), but from Ys onwards, any complaints against her voice are ridiculous. It is an astonishing force, capable of a huge range of emotion and expression. Though it is a great pleasure to comb through the lyrics and try to unpick them, there is no need to do so to grasp their meaning, for it is all carried in the delivery. ‘Sawdust and Diamonds’, the simplest track (‘simple’ being, here, a relative term), is maybe the most powerful. Accompanied only by her harp, all that carries us through for ten minutes is that voice. The way she moves from what sounds like almost complete resignation in the opening lines (“From the top of the flight of the wide, white stairs, through the rest of my life, do you wait for me there?”), through the stirring of desire and the sense of hope awakening again as the song unfolds, is captivating: and indeed we finish with her wringing out about twelve different emotions from the word ‘desire’ itself, sung repeatedly towards the song’s close. Other vocal highlights include the delivery of the lines “scrape your knee it is only skin, makes the sound of violins”, in ‘Only Skin’, which get me every time, and the final, ecstatic eruptions of ‘Cosmia’: “and I miss your precious heart!”

And then, of course, there is the music itself. Van Dyke Parks, whose 1968 album Song Cycle is also a favourite of mine, provided orchestral arrangements for four of the album’s five tracks, and they are certainly an inseparable part of the albums charm, accentuating and colouring and countering its many subtle shades of mood and tone. But the star of the show is, of course, the harp itself. I cannot get into technical details here, not being a harpist, but the range of the playing seems, to me, astonishing. Her melodies always surprise. They are crafted to be as affecting as possible, to catch you out even on the hundredth listen. For an example, choose any moment on any song on the album. Really. Anywhere. Nowhere is the writing lazy or obvious, and yet for all its risk-taking, there are somehow no missteps. It’s 55 minutes of perfection.

So, these are dense, difficult, winding, intricate songs, ranging from seven to seventeen minutes long, that reveal more with each listen. But here’s some other adjectives I’d throw at the album too: catchy (there’s plenty of melodic hooks here, even if they’re not anchored to verses and choruses), fun (parts of ‘Monkey and Bear’, a recounting of an origin story of Ursa Major, are even funny, though it’s also maybe the saddest song on the record), effortless (that seems an odd choice, when so much effort has clearly gone into it, but it never sounds laboured; it wears its accomplishments lightly). I offer these to counter a prevailing idea about the album that I profoundly disagree with: that it is a difficult listen. Yes, effort in listening reaps, as it always does, reward. But the album makes such effort easy, because it always delights, carries you with it, extends a hand to you. It is generous, never off-putting. It is deep and powerful and absolutely serious, but it is also sprightly and even a bit silly, committing to its own quirks, wearing them proudly.

Her catalogue has deepened and broadened greatly over the last ten years, with the hugely ambitious and varied triple album Have One on Me in 2010, and last year’s gorgeous Divers, yet still nothing else sounds quite like Ys. Nothing spins quite the same magic web. If you’ve never heard it before, I envy you – you have such a treat in store. But I don’t envy you too much, because I’ve grown and changed with this album, and it’s become a part of me. And I look forward to the next ten years with it.

Wildflower

corpseflowertrio

A few weeks ago in the New York Botanical Garden, the corpse flower (pictured above) came into bloom, releasing a stench variously described as smelling of rotting meat, sweaty socks, limburger cheese, human feces, and ‘lettuce when you take it out of the bag’. One six year old called it ‘worse than a thousand pukes‘. The flower takes ten years to come into bloom, a bloom which lasts for just a day, after which it dies. In New York, it is only the second time a corpse flower has successfully bloomed since 1939.

Many had been waiting a similarly long time – 16 years, to be exact – for Wildflower, the new album from the Avalanches. Such long waits create unreasonable expectations, and the idea of a “new Avalanches” had become something like the Chinese Democracy of bright, colourful, sample-based electronica. There was a good chance that, like the corpse flower, this wildflower’s bloom would turn out to be a horrid stink, an overthought, overproduced mess of incompatible scents, once-good ideas turned fetid and foul from too long in the think tank. I feared it might sour all the golden memories that have gathered around their essentially perfect debut, Since I Left You.

A relief, then, that as we gathered round waiting for this bud to finally bloom, it turned out not to be a corpse flower at all. Because Wildflower is fantastic. Take a deep breath of its heady perfume and find yourself intoxicated.

Records this complex and detail-orientated simply take a long time to grow, not to mention the headache of clearing so many samples. Now it’s here, the long wait doesn’t feel like an important part of the narrative anymore: this is simply the next step in the Avalanches’ evolution. Which means subtle changes – the introduction of guest vocalists, the added string-parts gliding over the rush – and a whole lot more of what they already did brilliantly: a potpourri of perfectly-chosen samples, all mixed and mingled into mind-altering new arrangements. Nobody does it better.

The Avalanches are easy-going perfectionists. The sounds, every micro-second of them, are considered and mixed to perfection, and yet, formally, their arrangement remains baggy and loose. So the whole thing feels almost improvised, thrown together, when actually it was painstakingly crafted over a decade and a half. ‘Frankie Sinatra’ reportedly went through over a hundred mixes to get it right, even after the arrangement had been settled on: yet it sounds like a ridiculous, out-of-control party.

Since I Left You felt like one long, sunstroke-induced dream, a hallucinatory journey complete with maps and ships and islands and beaches and tropical birds. Wildflower is still dreamy, but it feels a little more alive and ragged and unpredictable. Gone is the island paradise vibe – this feels more like a summer in the city, cramped and humid and buzzing with activity. ‘Live a Lifetime Love’ just bursts out the gates, the chatter of voices all around the mix. ‘The Wozard of Iz’ takes its classic 90s hip-hop beat and warps it in the sizzle of hot, smog-refracted sunlight. The sample of a child singing at the start of ‘Because I’m Me’ bursts with a youthful energy, crackling and spilling out in directions it’s not meant to. There’s a similar sensation in ‘Subways’, where the end of the line (“what you found”) seems to rush off with the beat. Honestly, it’s amazing how much life-force there is to this record, how in-the-moment it feels, for something that took so long to make.

Like many, I came to the Avalanches through the manic funhouse romp of ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’. The spiritual successor to that song here is ‘The Noisy Eater’, which is perhaps even sillier, and features some great guest verses from Biz Markie, and a kid-choir singing the unmistakable first verse from ‘Come Together’. (I imagine that sample must have been a nightmare to clear, but let’s be thankful Pat Shannahan managed it, as it makes the song). But while there are few moments like this of uninhibited crazy, there are also tinges throughout of sadness, regret, nostalgia, hope – a whole range of emotions. ‘If I Was a Folkstar’, with guest vocals from Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundwick, is particularly wistful. The warped vocals of ‘Sunshine’ hit exactly the right balance between happy and sad that the band have spoken of aiming for. Nostalgia is, of course, the key emotion in Avalanches’ music, and Mark Richardson, in his spot-on-as-usual review, made the point that Wildflower engages in a kind of double-nostalgia: nostalgia for the seventies refracted through nostalgia for the nineties. Even the cover art does this: it’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On refracted through Screamadelica.

I can’t help but wonder how long we’ll have to wait for the next one. Another sixteen years? I’m not sure I mind. If it takes this long to make records this good, then so be it. I’ll be there, gathered round with my headphones, waiting for it to bloom.

A Moon Shaped Pool

amsptrio

Some shimmering, still-in-the-process-of-forming reflections in the moon shaped pool of the new Radiohead album. If you still haven’t listened to it yet, you must be living under a moonrock.

Jonny Greenwood’s fingerprints are all over this, especially the strings. Oh, the strings. From the col legno and pizzicato flourishes of ‘Burn the Witch’, to the swooping and ducking and diving through fields of vocal shards at the end of ‘Daydreaming’, to the utterly drenched-in-strings ‘The Numbers’, there are gorgeous string arrangements all over this thing. The influence of Greenwood’s soundtracks to films like There Will Be Blood and The Master is very audible. (Both amazing films, too). And so the whole thing feels very cinematic, which is a lazy way to describe ‘rock music with string arrangements’, but in this case feels more specific than that, more appropriate.

If it’s Jonny’s album, then it’s also Nigel’s album. Nigel Godrich, the so-called ‘sixth member’ of Radiohead, has spoken of the ‘intense experience’ of working on the LP, and how ‘a large piece of his soul’ went into producing it, after he lost his father during the recording process. You can hear that emotion being poured into the sound design. The production on this thing is incredible. It just sounds so good.

If The King of Limbs was all about texture and rhythm, then A Moon Shaped Pool is all about texture and melody.

‘Burn the Witch’ followed by ‘Daydreaming’ is a very odd one-two punch of an opener. It catches me out every time. The former acts like an overture, a pulling back of the curtain. But then immediately it left-turns and becomes cold and quiet and lonely. Rather than a ‘Bends’ or a ‘Bodysnatchers’, we get something like a cross between ‘Paranoid Android’ and ‘Pyramid Song’: that is, something lengthy and ambitious but also strange and sad. It’s a brilliant bit of sequencing that sets us up for the tone of the album as a whole.

It’s a very varied LP, moving from krautrock (‘Ful Stop’) to bossa nova (‘Present Tense’) to Indian-sounding guitar (‘Desert Island Disk’), but the whole thing has a consistent mood underlying it which I’m going to call ‘soft anxiety’. (“Hey it’s me, I just got off the train…”)

One and a half minutes into ‘Decks Dark’ it sort of kicks itself up a gear. Bass and drums come in at the same time as a choir, so that the song simultaneously dives lower and soars higher. And it feels strangely soulful and funky, which before In Rainbows wouldn’t have been words that would have been associated with Radiohead, but which are perhaps the defining characteristic of their third ‘era’. (Think ‘Reckoner’, ‘Little By Little’, ‘Lotus Flower’). Then three and a half minutes in, the song just catches fire. All these tiny parts intersect, and there’s a piano that behaves like a bass hook, and it just stops making sense to me and starts making magical things happen in my ears.

‘Identikit’. ‘Identikit’. ‘Identikit’. ‘Identikit’. ‘Identikit’. ‘Identikit’. ‘Identikit’. ‘Identikit’. ‘Identikit’.

Seriously though, ‘Identikit’. For me, the highlight. The off-kilter rhythm is like a playground for all these different ideas, melodies, textures. Yorke’s vocal slips in and out of it. Listen for the subtle shift in emphasis from the line “sweet faced ones with nothing left inside” to “when I see you messing me around”: it’s the same phrasal pattern but it slips back off the rhythm slightly, and alters the whole feel of it. And then there’s that choir in the middle, with those sparkling synths underneath: just wow. I don’t think they’ve soared quite so high, so cathartically, since the climax of ‘All I Need’. It’s the sound of a band who know exactly what they’re doing, who have mastered their craft.

Is this all a bit gushing and positive? OK, well it hasn’t all clicked for me yet. ‘The Numbers’ is sonically sumptuous but I find it tonally odd: it’s the most political song, lyrically, with its strong environmental message, and yet it feels woozy and almost narcoleptic. So I don’t know whether to feel roused to action or lulled to sleep. And I don’t like the title of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’. Generally I like long titles, but it doesn’t fit the song, which is small and seductive. Also, where are the commas? It’s a list! It should have been called ‘Say Yes’, which would still have fit with the whole alphabetical order thing. Still, other than that, I have only effusive fanboy praise for it. It is a tremendously satisfying record, the most immediately pleasurable thing they’ve ever done. Time will tell how it compares to their others in the long run.

The vocal melody on ‘Present Tense’ is just the most beautiful flipping thing. I love it when Thom does his falsetto. And the studio version does it so much justice, surrounding it with echoes and floating it on a pillow of fluttering guitars.

The new version of ‘True Love Waits’ makes my skin turn icy. Thom’s vocal on this song is… It’s just so naked and bare and raw. Particularly the lines: “I’m not living, I’m just killing time”. I’ve been listening to this song for at least a decade, but I’d never really heard those lines before, felt the emotion in them. I imagine some will miss the guitar (the whole original chord progression has been stripped out, leaving just a simple, plaintive piano) but its absence is part of the new version’s emotional pull. Thom pleads “just don’t leave”, but it’s too late: the guitar has already gone, the album is ending, the relationship is ending.

Until we hit play again that is…