In 2017, about a year after the election, I started to pay attention to music again. Music had always been the art form, aside from literature, to which I felt closest. It allowed me to think and feel things that I could not through reading or writing. I had wanted to be a pianist as a child, but when I was 17, my teacher finally sat me down and told me that I didn’t have the talent to play professionally, and in any case, a life spent practicing ten hours a day and thinking only about classical music would make me miserable (she was right about both things). With the pressure of my own career aspirations lifted, my engagement with music felt like a space of freedom.
I stopped listening to music, or at least to new music, around 2013, and for a long time I avoided thinking about why. I wasn’t a teenager anymore, I told myself, and my tastes were ossifying in the usual way—didn’t most adults listen primarily to the music they loved in high school and college? But really I had stopped for a few different reasons. One was personal: family shocks and traumas had followed one after another starting in 2013, and I was depressed. I couldn’t stand to listen to music—especially new music—which had always provided me with so much comfort, excitement, and stimulation, and find that whatever I listened to, I still just felt depressed. Another had to do with criticism. In college and in my early twenties, music forums and blogs run by individual critics proliferated. Some of the lodestars for me were Woebot (Matthew Ingram), Blissblog (Simon Reynolds), K-Punk (Mark Fisher), and Cocaine Blunts (Andrew Noz). These were small, insular corners of the music internet, but it was through them that I heard new music, formed my tastes, and learned how to listen (I remember the specific post that told me who Arthur Russell was). They wrote about their areas of expertise, staged debates that sometimes turned vicious, quoted appreciatively when someone else wrote something they liked. It was a kind of social media, but because each blog was its own space, individual voices retained their autonomy. And the blogs run by professional and amateur critics were surrounded by an even larger network of mp3 blogs, sites that simply made albums available for download, so that I could listen to everything I was reading about. When people talk about the lost promise of the internet, I think about this little music blogger ecosystem. It was destroyed by Twitter. By 2013, most of the music writing I liked to read was gone, and most of what has survived since then are press releases and various kinds of ranking exercises that masquerade as criticism.
Finally, there was Spotify. I am here to demonize Spotify. Its negative impact on the lives of working musicians has been well documented, as have its homogenizing effects on music itself (the intensified need to make sure that listeners don’t get bored within the first thirty seconds and skip to the next track, songs getting shorter because artists are paid by the single play, et cetera). But Spotify also degrades the experience of listening to music. Like the rest of the internet, it encourages impatience. You listen to a track or album, and if it doesn’t grab you right away, you skip to the next thing, and then you never come back to it. You may intend to, but you won’t. There are too many playlists, too many slapped-together musical mood-boards, too many mixes claiming to document subgenres that don’t exist—opening the app on my phone just now, I’m being asked to delve into something called “Organic Experimental.” The platform is a fire hose of asinine recommendations for songs you haven’t heard that were only recommended to you because they’re as similar as possible to songs you have. (In the words of one Guardian writer: “You like bread? Try toast!”) In pursuit of its goal of perfect, frictionless streaming, Spotify encourages you to outsource the work of deciding what you like and dislike, and of figuring out why. In other words, it discourages listening to music as such. Not all listening requires immersive attentiveness—that’s what the radio is for—but in its attempts to swallow up radio and home listening alike, Spotify turns all music into something that fills up the background while you work or exercise or scroll through Twitter. And at least radio stations have DJs. Listening to Spotify is like listening to a radio station run by the stupidest version of myself.
When my depression began to lift in 2017, I realized that I wanted to listen to music again, and I worked to figure out what was making it difficult to do so. I stopped using Spotify. I saved money for a while and then bought an inexpensive stereo and speakers. I can recommend this to everyone with the ability to save money for a little while. I am not an audiophile, but it really is true that most music sounds better when you don’t play it through Airpods on an already loud subway car. Second, I started to buy the music I wanted to hear, whether in physical form or by paying for digital files on Bandcamp. This made me more thoughtful about what I listened to, because I didn’t want to spend my money on crap, and it made me listen more closely to the music I did buy, because I wanted to get my money’s worth. (It is also more ethical—if you enjoy a musician’s work and find yourself listening to it for, let’s say, a third time, you should be spending money on it.) Finally, I began to make some time each week to listen to music while doing nothing else. I still sometimes find this last part difficult, but it helps if I put my phone in the other room and then plug my headphones into the stereo. That way, I can’t go get my phone without taking off the headphones. I don’t have any advice for people who have Bluetooth headphones, which lack restrictive cords. I wish you well.
I wrote most of these reviews in January and February, and then the coronavirus arrived and shut down my writing brain along with all the other non-essential services. It remains largely shut down today, but I ran out of Howard Hawks movies to watch a while back, and a few days ago I realized that in addition to being scared all of the time, I was bored, too, so I got back to work. I have tried to avoid writing too much about Music in the Time of Covid—I don’t think music is any more important now than it was four months ago, and I think that people who do think that don’t know what made music important in the first place. I will write mostly, though not exclusively, about music released within the last year or two. And although I want to write about many different kinds of music, these reviews will not try to “survey the landscape.” That landscape is too large, and my own perspectives and tastes are too narrow. What I would like to do is document my experiences of listening, experiences which the tech and music industries are working to commodify and degrade.
Richard Dawson, 2020, 2019
When Prince released 1999, it was 1982, but now the future is more uncertain, so singer-songwriter Richard Dawson jumped just one year forward for his sixth album, which was released in October. Sign o’ the Times would also have been a good title. It’s very much a “state of the world” record, a conceit I usually find annoying, but the music on 2020 saves it. It is honest, searching, and ragged. There is very little self-regard. It is also bonkers. As a singer, Dawson has a thick Geordie accent (he lives in Newcastle) and a huge range, with a tone that croaks in its lower half and can get up to a piercing, almost screaming, falsetto. He is also a talented guitarist, but those talents are not put to the usual ends. I’m not sure how to describe it, except to say that Dawson’s guitar playing sounds like what all guitar playing actually is: someone moving their hands around on a box or slab that has wires tied to it. His songs usually have drums, but they do not bounce or groove—they lurch, or stomp, or slump over. He relies heavily on the old verse-chorus-bridge song structures, though, which makes everything else about his music funnier.
The songs here are slice-of-life narratives. There’s one about hating your civil service job in a country that is systematically defunding its civil services, one about being bad at soccer as a kid, one about the family pub closing down, one about working for Amazon. There’s an unpleasant not-quite-revenge fantasy about an unfaithful girlfriend, which should have been left off the album. But there is also “Jogging,” a mock epic with a soaring, triumphant melody about a laid-off school counselor working to manage his debilitating anxiety with moderate exercise. Halfway through, there is an interlude in which a robot voice starts to chant, “Jogging jogging, I’m jogging jogging / Jogging jogging jogging jogging,” which captures exactly how embarrassed I feel wheezing around Prospect Park with an app encouraging me to “keep going—you’re worth it!” The song explicitly poses the real necessity of what we’re now forced to call “self-care” in a time of social upheaval against the outrageousness of being asked to believe that “self-care” is an adequate response to that upheaval. There’s a string section that comes gliding in ironically during the chorus. The song makes me tear up every time I listen to it.
Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, Where Future Unfolds, 2019
Whoever engineered the recording of this live performance, which took place at a botanical conservatory in Chicago, deserves an award, if they give awards for that kind of thing. Where Future Unfolds lets you hear the sounds of the instruments in detail, but you can also hear that those instruments are being played by people standing together in a room, plus how the room shapes the sounds they make. The ensemble includes a drum machine and other electronics, live percussion, a small chorus, and the brilliant Angel Bat Dawid on clarinet. The music on the record began as a sound collage built around recordings of speeches from the Civil Rights movement. It is explicitly political, with 808s, funk beats, Dawid’s jazz solos sounding like hot sunlight reflecting off of glass, and looped samples backing up the chorus’s earnest pleas for solidarity and community. The album succeeds in praising freedom through community and embodying it in sound. The chorus sings in tight harmony and then switches to unison, and even in unison, the tone of each voice is distinct. Despite the Civil Rights speeches, it isn’t nostalgic. On a song called “Solar Power,” the chorus sings, “Take me to a land where future unfolds.” I was raised on the myth that history was over, and as a result, I’ve experienced the discrediting of that myth over the last several years as traumatic: Now things are happening again, sure, but they’re all terrible. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. This album is an effort to overcome that fear of the future and replace it with desire.
Where Future Unfolds was released by the label International Anthem, which was founded in Chicago in 2014 to provide a publishing outlet for the city’s jazz and improvised music scenes. It has hit a real stride over the past few years, putting out great records by drummer Makaya McCraven, trumpeter Jaimie Branch, the free jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements, and guitarist Jeff Parker, not to mention Dawid’s solo debut. Along with what’s coming out of London’s current jazz renaissance, this is among the most exciting music being made anywhere: politically engaged, avant-garde body music borrowing freely from the popular genres on which its practitioners were raised, which has been the whole idea of jazz from the beginning.
Áine O’Dwyer, Music for Church Cleaners Vol I & II, 2012
Áine O’Dwyer is an Irish musician who usually plays the harp, but five or six years ago she was given permission to record herself playing the organ at a nineteenth-century church in London while it was being cleaned during off-hours. Improvising off of rough scores she prepared for herself, O’Dwyer eventually released some ninety minutes of gentle and mysterious organ music in two volumes. Her work is not totally out of place in a church, but it is uneasy there. She does not play hymns. Elements of Baroque fugue, medieval open fifths, and hazy versions of English folk melodies all revolve slowly around one another. The microphones are placed close to her, not out in the church, so instead of the usual organ sound, a shimmering wall of disembodied harmony, you hear the seat creak, the valves open, and the pedals knocking against their frame as they are depressed and released. You also hear the cleaners, down in the nave and far away, moving around, chatting, setting down their tools. One of them comes up to the organ eventually and asks Áine not to hold low notes for so long, because then that’s all the cleaners can hear, and it’s annoying.
For a while in the 2010s, music critics were obsessed with “hauntology,” the return of dead and disappeared genres to contemporary music in ghostly form. Hauntology was not just nostalgia, the idea that the past was better and that we’d like to return to it. The most famous practitioner of hauntology in music, Burial, produced loving memorials to British rave music of the early ’90s based not on his own memories—he was too young to go to the raves—but on stories told to him by his older brother. Rave culture promised a future that Burial should have inhabited as an adult, but that future never arrived, and that sense of the past failing to keep its promises to those who came after is what made hauntology such a fruitful project for those born to the wealthiest generation in world history.
With its ingenious conceit, Music for Church Cleaners poses a related but distinct question, one I’ve been returning to over the last year or so, which is what to do with parts of the past that persist despite well-founded disinterest and neglect. What is a church organ for if nobody makes sacred music anymore? What is it doing in a church if the only people who come to hear it are the service workers who have to be there, and who understandably would rather O’Dwyer lay off the low notes? What do we do with places, institutions, or practices that don’t go away even as they no longer serve a useful function in the lives of most people? Like horse racing, for example, or private health insurance.
Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love, 2019
I was recently reminded of Jenny Hval by something the poet and memoirist Patricia Lockwood wrote in the London Review of Books. It was an essay on John Updike: “He grows up, in short, but not into a real adult,” she writes, “just into a country club member.” Updike may recover from that one day, but not soon. Up until very recently, male artists were assumed to be speaking on behalf of everyone, by virtue of being male, but that has changed, and now men are having difficulties. What are they supposed to say about themselves, if they can’t say it on behalf of everyone? Another way to put that question would be to ask, “What is soft dick rock?” as Hval does at the beginning of her 2015 album, Apocalypse, girl. “Using the elements of dick,” she answers, “to create a softer, toned-down sound.”
I like Hval’s music because she is able to lose herself in thought while continuing to think the thought. Her lyrics and the arrangements that eddy around them sound like they’re aware of and curious about each other. She is interested in the ways that commodification demystifies life so that it can be turned into money, and her music tries to restore some of that mystery without pretending that commodification doesn’t exist. “She found stretch mark cream in an Airbnb bathroom,” she sings in a dreamy voice on The Practice of Love, in a song about not having children. “I wonder how I’ve managed to avoid conceiving / You know, by accident.” The song is wrapped in a dance beat that sounds like an echo of itself. Her music returns again and again to the recent past and its lost cultural possibilities. “In New York I don’t dream,” she sang on an earlier record. “Here I see no subculture. No, No Future. No Big Science.”
And while we’re talking about the ways in which New York culture is falling short, I have a complaint of my own. I want to be able to attend a monthly event, maybe in the back room of a bar, called “The Sad Dance.” Attendance would be on the honor system: if you go, you should genuinely be sad. The DJ would play music not to cure your sadness but to work you through it in a dignified way, providing you pleasure and perspective but not—this is important—fun. Every time, they would close with Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” (I’d probably heard it a hundred times before I realized it was a breakup song), but before that they would play something like “Ashes to Ashes,” the fifth track on this album. The lyrics recount a dream Hval had about a song (this one), a song “about a burial,” in which “every beat went all the way down / into the two holes in the ground.” The beat is not aggressive or particularly kinetic, but as younger millennials than me say, it slaps. It suggests a float tank where you hang out and groove. There should be some public place where I can dance to this song with other people, but because we live in a broken world, there isn’t.
Hval’s voice is more in the foreground on “Ashes to Ashes” than elsewhere on the album, which is probably why I like it less than her other records. Her voice is an unassuming but incredible instrument, over which she has uncanny control. It’s very pure, it doesn’t blur at all around the edges, and she hits the center of every note as she sings long, unspooling melodies. I assumed some of this was studio manipulation, but when I saw her perform live a few years ago in what was essentially the back of a bar, her voice sounded exactly the same. She and a pair of dancers wore long blond wigs for that performance, and tossed bananas back and forth on stage.
Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter 4: Memphis, 2019
Despite the now total homogenization of Top 40 radio and Spotify’s most popular playlists, most Americans still regularly encounter and spend uninterrupted time listening to experimental, avant-garde, or atonal music. They’re not conscious of doing this, however, because they encounter it as soundtracks to movies. While Hildur Guðnadóttir, for example, has never played or toured with any act more famous than Throbbing Gristle and Sunn O))), many millions of people have heard hours of her music, because she also wrote the soundtracks to the HBO series Chernobyl and the feature film Joker. She won an Oscar for the latter. Her face will probably never appear on network television again.
Experimental music is easy to digest in movies because it is grounded both in narrative and in the faces, bodies, and voices of the people on screen. As it happens, the same principle holds when you turn it inside out and make experimental music a container for narrative and people. The American saxophonist Matana Roberts has now made four albums of what she calls “panoramic sound quilting”—a mix of spoken word and free jazz, with cracked bits of spirituals and folk songs fading in and out—in order to document her family’s journey from bondage in the antebellum South to the present day. She plans to eventually make twelve. The latest installment, Memphis, recounts a story Roberts’s grandmother used to tell her, about an ancestor who hid alone in the woods as a child in Tennessee after the Klan murdered her father and beat her mother for resisting the segregation of their church.
I could say that Roberts’s music brings this awful story to life, because of course it does, but it seems more important to say that in Memphis the story, told by Roberts in a kind of speak-singing incantation, makes the music intelligible in a way that’s unusual for free jazz. Roberts, speaking as her child ancestor, remembers when her mother “told me of a heaven where black folks could walk in any of the twelve pearly gates . . . They walked on streets of gold and they all had shoes.” Later in the album, on an instrumental track called “Shoes of Gold,” a vibraphone appears, plinking and plonking rapidly over an uneasy bed of roiling bass and plucked guitar and fiddle strings. There is no melody. It sounds like something from a dream sequence that turns queasy. It’s a cracked mirror version of the special heaven for black people; the violence that made her ancestor’s fantasy necessary warps the fantasy itself.
Memphis is a difficult and knotty record, not because it is hard to understand, but because Roberts is trying not to flinch as she works through what it means to cherish a family story about a child hiding from the white people who murdered her father. Roberts’s music has a bleak humanism and a willingness to slide into the grotesque that can be frightening. She reminds me a little of Scott Walker, if that makes any sense.
Charles Curtis, Performances & Recordings 1998-2018, 2019
Charles Curtis was trained at Juilliard, got a job on the music faculty at Princeton immediately after graduating, and then became principal cellist with the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg. Those are the kind of credentials that all but guarantee you a comfortable career in the mainstream of western classical music, if you want it, working through the yearly performances of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms and occasionally putting out recordings of the especially famous pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Instead, Curtis has spent most of his working life developing and performing new music with composers such as Eliane Radigue, Alvin Lucier, and La Monte Young, all of whom have named pieces after him.
Curtis reminds me of Arthur Russell, another cellist who ranged across many different kinds of music in pursuit of certain qualities of sound. For Russell, those qualities were the tone of his amplified cello, the looseness of the beats, and the gentleness of his voice. For Curtis, they have to do with drawing attention to the sounds that usually go unnoticed as they hover around and inside the sound one recognizes as “someone playing a cello.” The first of the three discs in this career survey begins with a seventeen-minute performance of Radigue’s “Occam V,” an almost static droning piece in which Curtis plays just a single note, occasionally doubling it by playing the same note an octave up. He plays the note louder and softer, overtones drift in and out, he bends the intonation up and down. If you’re feeling irritable, the piece sounds like someone who needs seventeen minutes to tune a cello. If you’re not, you realize that the piece is tuning you, as a listener. It’s followed by eight solo performances of short Renaissance songs by Guillaume de Machaut, Tobias Hume, and others. Then Curtis ends with a beautiful and melancholy composition of his own, “Unfinished Song,” which lovingly wraps long melodic figures (echoes of the Renaissance songs) around a single, unchanging electronic tone.
Curtis does not so much juxtapose different kinds of music against one another as thread them together through tone, resonance, and mood. His playing is focused, calm, and simple in the best sense of the word. It is also spiritual in a way I can’t exactly pin down. It’s as though the huge spaces he slowly opens up inside single notes also suggest a way out of the self.
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, 2020
Patience, Dizzy Spells, 2019
Go Hirano, Corridor of Daylights, 2004
Now that many of us no longer go out at all, I’ve been wondering whether there will be a resurgence of music that intentionally sounds like it was made in private homes. If you’re bored of Netflix and frustrated that your sourdough starter keeps dying, you could even record some yourself. There are a number of possible approaches. Like Fiona Apple, you could reduce your instrumental palette almost entirely to percussion instruments (of which the piano is one) and then spend months seeing what happens as you toss them around, bang them into each other, startle your pet. You could make a sound at one end of the room, close to the microphone, and then walk to the other end of the room and make it again. While this is going on, you could be writing songs like an avant-garde Cole Porter, channeling your wit and anger through playful rhyme schemes, long melodies that zip around, and fractured song structures. Slowly, it could all come together. Sadly, this approach will be accessible to very few of us, because in order for it to work you need to be a genius.
You could also make bedroom pop in the 1980s vein, like Roxanne Clifford does under the name Patience. Her instrumental arrangements don’t necessarily sound like they were made at home, though they were—music production software is now so sophisticated and so cheap that the line separating what’s possible in a bedroom versus a recording studio is blurry. But her vocals sound domestic, like she is competently and unselfconsciously singing along to a recording of a song she wrote, and they are on the quieter side, because she only had to fill a small space when she recorded them. Her music is clean but not slick, with an insinuating and sticky drive that reminds me of Thomas Leer’s “Private Plane,” one of the earliest and greatest bedroom pop tunes.
Then again, you might not already know your way around music production software, and you might not already have a knack for writing thoughtful pop songs that are tinged with dread. Maybe the best starting place for the amateur musician under quarantine would be Go Hirano’s Corridor of Daylights, which was first released in 2004. It was recently reissued by Black Editions, which has spent the last few years reissuing albums from the archives of Japanese experimental label PSF. PSF stands for “psychedelic speed freaks,” which is an accurate description of the label’s favored sound, but Corridor of Daylights is an outlier. Hirano recorded all thirteen tracks in his home, each in a different place and at different times of day. He plays piano, melodica, percussion, and windchimes, occasionally hum-singing along. His songs are sketches of songs, half melodies, sometimes improvised, all lovely. The rooms of his home are like a second musician playing along with him—I may be wrong, but I believe I can tell which songs were recorded with the windows open and which ones weren’t. Shortly after Corridor of Daylights was first released, Hirano’s microphones broke. He bought new ones, and hated them: “It’s like they’re hyper focused on the individual making them,” he said in an interview last year (the first he’d ever done), “like they can only capture the sound of a person completely removed from his or her environment.” He didn’t make another record for thirteen years.