When writing about music, there’s a tendency to summon the same stock phrases. Words such as nuance, reverberation, immediacy, bite. It’s the framework through which our sonic adventures function, I guess; snatches of inner monologue that basically translate as “ooh, that’s a gorgeous bass hook”.
This use of template phraseology – apart from being demonstrative of a poor vocabulary – is, I’m certain, little more than scratching around in the dirt. A failure to detail the emotions triggered by even a semi-decent track. It’s not euphoria, affirmation, bewitchment, intrigue, awe, joy or wonderment. Instead, it’s a composite of all just mentioned. Something amplified, then blasted directly at your soul. No idea what it’s called, of course. There’s probably only a word for it in German. No literal translation into English – or beguiled record boy geek-speak, come to that.
There’s six albums remaining in this steep approach to albums of note, 2003 style, and each is loaded with nuance, reverberation, immediacy, and bite. And if that isn’t exciting in itself, I’ve ignored the usual process applied in writing these year-by-year breakdowns of fascinating records – that is, some vague sort of calibration affair that points towards championing a particular disc – and replaced it with not having the foggiest notion which of these six LPs I have down as my Album of the Year.
Look, I’ll go and pop out for a cigarette whilst you read the nominations. In alphabetical order:
Broadcast – Ha Ha Sound
Explosions In The Sky – The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place
M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
Mogwai – Happy Songs For Happy People
Outkast – Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Robert Wyatt – Cuckooland
Not that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is an album in any traditional sense. Rather, it’s two very different solo LPs stapled warily together under the brand umbrella, as if Arista Records had done the maths and cynically decided that one Outkast release was far more likely to rake in the cash than individual discs by Andre 3000 and Big Boi. I like to think of it as a homage to Recurring by Spacemen 3, which pulled off a similar trick to far fewer sales.
So: let’s make it seven albums. And although I’m not certain of the precise destination, there’s at least a semblance of the general direction we’re headed. Phrases sketched in notebooks as if prompting a nod and a wink – particularly in regards to such contrasting strands of otherworldliness that all (except the Outkast record) liberally exude. As part of the research for this piece, I made the mistake of listening to all not entitled Speakerboxxx or The Love Below back-to-back, with nothing but evening and glasses of wine for company, and as if to prove that experiencing recorded sound is anything but passive, the resulting emotion was laced with a loose notion of having been enchanted by wood sprites – not to mention gaining a notebook full of references to optical illusion.
Because there’s the suggestion of a haunting going on. An “out of the corner of your eye” type effect. I love the fact that ‘Hunted By A Freak’, the first track on Happy Songs For Happy People, has vocals recorded from within a full tank of cold water. How Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts wears upon its countenance a highly synth-centric vision of shoegaze trope, the samples sparse (and therefore adding to the overall effect). How the beauty behind Cuckooland occupies a deliberately slanted angle – Wyatt’s bitter-sweet, huff ‘n’ puff vocals suspended in mid-air above the quirky, playful, post-jazz /post-psychedelic motifs. In fact, there might even be a (warped) comparison to make between this album and the Andre 3000 affair mentioned above; both flit through genre with a light, deft touch. Only Robert Wyatt executes this with a panache that’s decidedly unhurried (this really is his finest album – or so claims the scribbles in my notebook).
All of which is all well and good, but it doesn’t necessarily bring us any closer to that definitive sound of 2003. I’m going to discount Ha Ha Sound and The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place – not because they fail to mesmerise (they most surely do); it’s more the case that both bands have records resident in the back catalogue that trigger even more pronounced patterns of amazement in this particular listener (also: there will be an in depth visit to Explosions In The Sky territory in the near future). And as much as I admire the energy behind Speakerboxx, the gusto underpinning The Love Below (even if I’ll happily never listen to ‘Hey Ya’ again; there are certain tracks that have been ingested to too many times – often involuntarily – and there arrives a point where ubiquity translates as staleness), the restrained beauty of the M83 album, and the lovely record by dear old Robert – aye, my vote’s with Mogwai.
There’s such duality going on with this LP. Something in the background – peripheral vision and all that. Abrasion and melody, constantly interchangeable within in the mix; you’ll have one understanding of musical direction fixed firmly in your crosshairs, only to discover the presence is something else entirely when the moment arrives to pull the trigger. The beauty is stark and windswept (particularly on the subtle embrace of ‘Kids Will Be Skeletons’), and yet dissonance or alienation or fuzzy, uncontextual events are never too far from the surface of things.
And whilst it’s perhaps not revolutionary within the context of the Mogwai timeline – as with a majority of the artists mentioned in this piece, this band come with musical parameters somewhat pre-defined – it’s a deeply unsettling record courtesy of its engagement with perception. Dark trails, backlit by curvature, in which the contours of this post-rock palette are constantly, subtly shifting.
So yeah, Happy Songs For Happy People is my Album of the Year. I do however reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow.
Robert Wyatt / Lullaloop
M83 / 0078H
Mogwai / Hunted By A Freak