I know, I know: I’m rather late. Still, I beat the Grammys. But before it becomes as dangerously irrelevant, I present to you the Top 10 Albums of 2011.
Last year, I bought 41 new LPs and screened a few others. Virtually every artist on my list of favorites released an LP, yet six of this year’s ten best are from acts I’d never heard of back on January first—a simultaneously exciting and saddening fact. This is because, by and large, it was the Year of “Meh.” In virtually every case, albums released by past favorites were “alright.” There were a lot of 3.5/5-star records which, ceteris paribus, isn’t a bad haul. Before briefly discussing those, I’d like to laud copiously the few artists who in no way disappointed me.
Applause to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their incredible and brilliantly effective score for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a record I disqualified from competition because, since it’s basically a gapless and queerly disquieting three-hour suite, it’s just too different a beast to be considered for such a list. And accolades also go to St. Vincent, whose spectacular Strange Mercy just missed making the list because record #10 just happened to more or less subvert my very expectations of “pop music.” But as for the rest of those “meh”-inducing records…
The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead wasn’t really a disappointment; in fact, it is an excellent record inspired by American folk. It’s still a bit of a let down, however. I know good artists evolve or die, but I dearly miss the Brit folk that used to fuel Meloy & Co. And since they did it so well, the mere existence of albums like Picaresque and Castaways & Cutouts& will always loom like a thundercloud over anything new they release.
The final Bright Eyes album was not as bad as it initially seemed. It was, in fact, better than Cassadaga. But that, unfortunately, is like saying “My migraine today is better than it was yesterday.” Iron & Wine followed up the 5-star, Desert Island Scenario-Worthy LP The Shepherd’s Dog by choosing not to try and follow its act. Kiss Each Other Clean is something Iron & Wine’s never done before and, though not trying to follow his own sublime act was a smart move by Sam Beam, Kiss as a whole is merely “okay.” The great bits (first and last songs especially) are stupendous. The not great bits, “Big Burned Hand,” for instance, are lower nadirs than anything he’s previously put out.
Tune-Yards’ second record, while interesting and still idiosyncratic, really lacks the charm of its crudely assembled predecessor. Death Cab for Cutie truly followed through on their promise to produce something totally different—a promise almost all bands make at some point in their career, usually immediately before releasing something that sounds exactly like the rest of their oeuvre. Codes & Keys is very much Death Cab, but still quite different. That’s a good thing. But in the end, it’s no better or worse than Narrow Stairs—their least inspired record to date. Hell, even Atlas Sound—solo project of one of my favorite musicians and core member of my favorite band, Deerhunter—released what was just a “pretty good” LP. This is unfortunate, since his last record, 2009′s Logos, was impeccable, unflawed. There’s been a fork in Atlas Sound’s path for some time now: Should Cox turn his project into something friendlier to his more accessible, traditional folk tendencies, or continue to indulge in his warbling and curious sonic eccentricities (“Washington School”)? Parallax is a lovely record. But Cox took the road I’d've preferred he not take. And The Pains of Being Pure at Heart released a wonderful record, jam-packed with tracks that embody the very essence of everything I love about the band. They sounded familiar, natural the first time I heard them. Unfortunately, I was, for the most part, sick of what became too-damned-familiar songs about three weeks later. Regardless, I ended up with a stack of pretty decent records on which there are to be found some singular standout tracks—exciting, saddening, intriguing, fun stuff.
I also ended up with some clunkers. Virtually everything featuring prominent use of the unironic saxophone became grating by May, when it became plain that unironic saxophone was very much in vogue (though Kaputt is another pretty alright album, I’m looking at you, Destroyer). Let us not discuss Saul Williams’ Volcanic Sunlight—an LP which, like some of the above-discussed, certainly suffers from following a flawless record, but that also suffers from a major case of Now You Sound Generic syndrome. Also let us not discuss Bon Iver. At least not past me saying that 1) the record that will likely win the Grammy for Best LP was the most disappointing record I bought this year, and 2) Justin Vernon’s project has now joined The National and Arcade Fire as Bands Whom I Will Never Again Support Financially—all three acts duped me into purchasing three mediocre records and they are now, as they say in baseball, fucking out.
Now. On to the standouts.
Perhaps it’s because I stay miles away from anything that’s been described using the word “dubstep”—even if the only instantiation of that word is in the phrase “post-dubstep”—but, until I spun this LP, I had never heard anything like it. And that includes the rest of Blake’s oeuvre (the two EPs he released after this album and the one he released just before it are fair-to-middling at best). This whole record is singular in sounding like a rainy May afternoon scored by a drunk given Vicodin and valium.
James Blake‘s saddest moment (the “Lindisfarne” suite) sounds like a stoned phone call made to an ex-lover. Its centerpiece (a cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” which kicks the crap out of the original) sounds, with its delicate piano punctuated by tense and wobbling bass, like the postcoital moments of semi-clarity that take place after one’s had ill-advised post-breakup alcohol-induced sex. Hell, its most energetic, aggressive moment (“To Care”) stillsounds stoned and drunk. This could be hideous (ever create something while drunk and then really look at it the next day?), but Blake pulls it off with aplomb.
For those of you who have no frame of reference for my stream of intoxication metaphors, the LP somehow recreates in sound the loveliness of the moments right before one falls asleep. When you’re conscious enough to know you’re pretty much unconscious. Free of the burden of being alive, but not dead, thus able to appreciate it. But despite the fact that it’s always lovely to feel that impending freedom from consciousness, “loveliness” is not at all a synonym for “happiness.” That moment on the cusp of sleep can be simultaneously beautiful and sad (“This bed is warm, but still feels empty without him/her”); it can be simultaneously beautiful and tense (“I have too much to do tomorrow, but for a while that won’t matter at all”). As I explained in my June write-up of the year’s 20 Best Tracks, there’s a scene in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation where a Native American, who may or may not be stoned, caresses the protagonist’s face and says, “I can see your sadness. It’s lovely.” Throughout this self-titled LP, I can hear Blake’s. And it is. Lovely.
For its innovation and, so far as I know, uniqueness (and I’m using the adjective “unique” correctly here; read the second from the bottom), this album should have placed higher on my list. Why didn’t it? Simply put, Blake’s lyrics are generally so nonsensical he makes the bulk of Beck’s Midnite Vultures sound positively lucid and many of the songs consist of a single phrase repeated (for a very good reason, but still).
Incidentally, in addition to being the Year of the Unironic Saxophone Solo, 2011 was the year of cover art either so appropriate it affects one’s perception of the album (like both physical albums and music videos used to do) or, conversely, cover art so fucking ugly I wish I were the kind of man who was Type-B enough to leave some of my mp3/AAC/FLAC files imageless (Man Man, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart). And the cover of James Blake pretty well sums up its sonic quality, its blurry, confused, blue mood. If maybe you’d like to feel the temperate haziness of one glass of red wine on a largely empty stomach, but still be able to responsibly operate machinery, this is the record for you.
The King of Limbs is radically different than it first appears. Where it feels unbearable, unmanageable, it is actually tightly managed. Where it feels beautiful and relaxed, it is dangerously unmoored. And all throughout, it’s definitely Radiohead being Radiohead, but the baby steps are what make this album remarkable. White noise. Absent melodies. Insistent bass. Limbs is not a sequel to In Rainbows, but it does, as I said, share its spirit of being art without pretense or condescension. Limbs looks flashier. At first, it sounds like it’s Kid A-defiant. It isn’t. It is nothing more or less than what happens when five open-minded and talented musicians come together and decide to do what they do best, but this time, they try to do it better—like any good artist should.
And here’s a psychotically in-depth review of the album. I tend to live for years at a time in between girlfriends. This is the sort of thing that can end up happening.
I only remembered this album when I was checking out other critics’ year-ending Best Of lists. When it was released, I’d meant to buy it but, overwhelmed by the other ten very anticipated new LPs by favorite artists to which I’d not yet listened, I held off and, eventually, completely forgot what I was supposed to eventually get around to. So it was mid-December before it crossed my path again and, although I really was intrigued and did want to give it a fair shake, at that point, I thought to myself, “Wonderful, another record I have to cram in before I compile my list.” This may sound like an odd sentiment coming from a man who claims to enjoy music, but it’s not easy for me to find the time to give every new LP five undistracted listens. Especially if I don’t have the will, because the record is tedious or worse. Five uninterrupted listens is several hours in which I’m doing nothing but checking out a record, and sometimes I can barely find the time to sleep. Regardless, I caved, and am obviously extraordinarily glad I did.
Cults is the most fun I’ve had with an album since Sleigh Bells’ Treats, and it is, in fact, far, far more fun than Treats. In fact, it might be a better LP. The album is pure pop, but it’s underscored by serious darkness. It’s black bubblegum. Someone (whom I would certainly credit if I could recall his or her name or where I read the sentiment) once said that the most powerful popular music is that which wraps something subversive in the prettiest package; the sort of music that slips something spectacular and unexpected into something that seems nonthreatening. Radiohead’s unbelievably bleak “No Surprises” comes to mind, as it sounds like something you’d play a baby to put it to sleep, when really it’s something you’d play while waiting in the running car for the garage to fill up with gas. Every song on Cults is epitomic of this idea. It sounds like a heavy-reverb update of 1950s prom and sock hop rock. Bouncy, familiar, safe. But lyrically, it’s the sort of thing that, while not terribly profound, would get that sock hop-ready teen sent to the counselor’s office if it were turned in to his or her high school teacher as a project. Also, it’s worth mentioning that the vocal samples that punctuate the album are all from cult leaders—the kind of people whose lives tend to end with mass murder.
When I received the record, I was worried that I’d be unable to find the time for five full listens in the few remaining days of 2011 (and I’m too neurotic to not finish my list before the year was out). As it turned out, I listened to it five times in a row. Not because I had to, but because I could. Cults is like meeting a new lover and, for that first month, wanting to spend every second together. Maybe it won’t lead to anything deep or profound, but for a bit, it will be the most fun you can remember having.
Burst Apart is not a break-up record. I know break-up records, and love unashamedly their schizoid mournful/furious/desperate attitude. Much of the best music I own, now that I think of it, is essentially break-up music. But instead, The Antlers seem to have put together an excellent record to play during the Death Stage of a relationship. It’s an LP for denouement. A score for the waning days when both parties know what’s coming, what should come, but neither is courageous enough to make the first of the last moves.
Burst Apart covers the end stretch when you’re not experiencing intimacy; “Hounds” conveys this with either sarcasm or longing—it actually doesn’t matter. ”I want to speak for you/ as if I know what you’ll do.” It covers the days when you’re so out of love you’re borderline disgusted by your significant other—the days when sex, for either curative or palliative purposes, is out of the question. The plea to just call it quits already, “Parentheses,” says it well: “Close up your knees/ and I’ll close your parentheses.” It covers the sudden moment when you realize your affair is doomed to fail. The gorgeous and warped-sounding piano of “Corsicana” describes it well, with the tale of a couple who wake up too late to do anything about the fact that their house is on fire (excellent metaphor; true story.)
Instrumental “Tiptoe” is the sound of walking on eggshells to avoid yet another fight. The record’s opener, “I Don’t Want Love” is pretty plain about its rejection of connection. “Bruised down below/ I should have built better walls/ I should have slept in my clothes.” Seinfeld once analogized breaking up with a lover to tipping over a cola vending machine: “[B]reaking up is like knocking over a coke machine. You can’t do it in one push, you got to rock it back and forth a few times, and then it goes over.” “I Don’t Want Love” even sketches that—the actually-”mid”-and-not-really-”post”-breakup stretch. And “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” gorgeously underscores the feeling of helplessness that’s perpetually present at the end of every lengthy tryst.
The Antlers’ Burst Apart is the most lyrically coherent and intelligently penned record of the year which, after the mind-explodingly gorgeous and epic Hospice, should come as a surprise to no one. And, if it’s worth anything to anyone, in a year of spectacular cover art (which I really believe affects one’s perception of the album, even if it’s just to tint the songs a certain color—in this case, jaundiced), the LP takes first place. Aesthetically pleasant and possessed of enough presence that I could write pages analyzing the image.
I would really like to be able to say something about this record that no one else is capable of saying. That’s the whole point of writing: To present your voice to the world, to contribute something to a conversation that would otherwise be uncontributable, since your voice—if not the contents of your thoughts—is indubitably unique. I’d've liked to give Blouse’s debut the sort of idiosyncratic review which could only come from me. Unfortunately, Lindsay Zoladz summed up the spirit of the album better than I could have imagined. Actually, she metasums it up, invoking her own inspiring lines. And after doing so, I now better understand why my whole life I’ve been enamored by the use of detuned or broken instruments and, for the past few years, things that sound like they were recorded by holding a Memorex in a cassette deck in front of an AM radio’s speakers.
“I often return to this line from Simon Reynolds’ Retromania: “Unlike digital formats, analogue degrades through overuse: each listener kills the sound she loves.” There’s a certain comfort in that kind of reciprocity, and anyone who’s ever accidentally reset the listening history on their iTunes library and felt like they’d wiped a part of their identity clean is familiar with the digital world’s maddening indifference to our affection. With that observation, Reynolds hits on the unifying and fundamentally human allure of chillwave, lo-fi, smear-pop, and any other kind of contemporary music that makes a conscious choice in an Auto-Tuned world to sound less than pristine. It’s music trying to approximate the grubby, hopelessly destructive way we love books, records, and each other.”Yes. Thank you, Simon and Lindsay.
The best I can offer to follow that act is a recommendation of standout songs: ”Into Black,” “They Always Fly Away,” and “Videotapes.” Blouse is nostalgic without feeling contrived; it’s familiar without feeling derivative; it’s simultaneously old and new.
Someone once proposed to me the question, “What’s your favorite three-song sequence?” I stared blankly at that person or at least would have if we’d ever met. Instead, I stared blankly at his or her words on my monitor, pondering. My initial reply was simply, “What in the hell does that mean?” He or she went on to explain that, many of the best albums—even the ones that are great all the way from front to back—have certain core segments which make them excellent, which allow them to transcend other records and become not merely art, but awe-inspiring opuses. Most people take sequencing for granted but, having myself assembled a collection of short fiction, a smaller fiction collection (comprising completely different pieces) that functioned as my master’s thesis, and a forthcoming collection of poems, I can tell you it’s actually arduous and frequently a little heartbreaking. There’s no right answer, except there is. Sequencing something perfectly is like answering a Zen koan.
As I was on a Nine Inch Nails message board, the examples tended to be from Reznor’s records: “Ruiner,” “The Becoming,” and “I Do Not Want This” from 1994′s Downward Spiral was frequently cited; so was “The Fragile,” “Just Like You Imagined,” and “Even Deeper from 1999′s The Fragile. “Everything in Its Right Place,” “Kid A,” and “The National Anthem,” from Radiohead’s 2000 record, Kid A, was also popularly agreed upon. I’m sure you get the idea. This year, many records were excellently sequenced (Radiohead, The Weeknd, Reznor & Ross’ Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Panda Bear, St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy, Tune-Yards’ Whokill), Era Extraña takes the blue ribbon for not only best overall of 2011, but it enters contention for Best Three-Song Sequence I’ve heard: “Polish Girl,” “The Blindside Kiss,” and “Hex Girlfriend.” It doesn’t hurt that they’re bookended by two separate instrumental numbers meant to segregate them from the rest of the record. It actually does hurt the record itself, however, that these three lead off what is an outstanding LP—but there is just no way to follow, with tracks 6-11, that opening act.
Extraña is a huge maturation from 2009′s still-Top-Ten-excellent Psychic Chasms. Without losing any of his idiosyncrasies, Palomo (another more or less one-man act) put together a polished and cleaner record that makes his debut sound like the best demo tape you’ve ever heard. Listening to it now, I sort of think to myself, “Man, when you give this guy a little funding it’s flat-out amazing what he can make happen.” Neon Indian did precisely what Merril Garbus failed to do with Tune-Yards’ second record. Palomo’s lyrics are better (some of them are actually quite delightful) and his sound is similarly distinctive, without feeling like you’re just falling for what’s begun to feel gimmicky (something that Sleigh Bells and The XX will struggle with in 2012). Extraña shows evolution along a well-defined trajectory, something that’s hard to do—after Picaresque, The Decemberists’ Crane Wife, Hazards of Love, and King Is Dead are successive sudden mutations that feel awkward and occasionally alienating, regardless of whether or not they’re “good.” Pretend Neon Indian records are mint chocolate ice cream with bright rainbow sprinkles. If you liked the flavor of a Neon Indian LP in 2009, and the taste of the different taste of the one-off “Sleep Paralysist” in 2010, then you’ll love 2011′s LP—it’s also a bowl mint chocolate ice cream with rainbow sprinkles, but made with a better recipe.
If it’s not already obvious, I’m a lyric man. When it comes to pop music, the words the singer sings will make or break an album for me—this is why Beck’s Sea Change seemingly inexplicably receives a higher rating from me than the not merely groundbreaking, but earth-shattering Odelay. Why I consider Siamese Dream quite inferior to Pisces Iscariot—one of rock music’s most highly regarded and coherent albums falters, in my opinion, before a collection of freakin’ B-sides. Having said this, it’s maybe worth a little more when I say that Within and Without is one of my favorite records of the year despite the fact that I almost never have any idea what the fuck Ernest Green (the man behind Washed Out) is saying.
As I said above, 2011 seems to have been the year of alternately brilliantly applicable cover art or cover art so ugly I started looking for duct tape to wrap around the album when it arrived in the mail. In the case of Washed Out, it’s the former. And the image to the left actually works well as a springboard to talking about the music it accompanies. The album sounds every bit as crisp and clean as those white, white sheets; it’s as smooth as the lovers’ skin and as relaxedly passionate as their embrace; it’s every bit as rumpled as the bed spread and as enigmatic as those faceless folks themselves. It’s also worth mentioning that the LP is sexy as hell, without feeling sleazy or pornographic (although that can also be great; see The Weeknd). Seriously: Fucking kudos to whoever listened to the record and then managed to precisely recreate the LP’s sound using only a camera.
Within and Without is certainly of the “chillwave” oeuvre that is currently being both butchered and defined by a dozen or more acts; the record sounds like what some people call “bedroom music” (despite the previous allusions to the content of the cover, I do not mean this in a sexual way; “bedroom music” is actually its own critical sub-genre), put together on a glowing silver Macbook instead of a shitty four-track recorder. (Guess I’m not incorrect, this image popped up when I googled “Washed Out.”) This is an interesting juxtaposition. While remaining intimate and simplistic in many ways, the record never sounds inscrutable (see: the entirely alright, samey-samey-sounding and critically overrated 2011 self-titled by Youth Lagoon) or affected (see: Sleep ∞ Over’s Forever). Simultaneously, it never ends up too slick—the kind of record that feels monolithic, like something with no pores into which one might sink; defined to the point of feeling too controlled to really be intriguing. It’s Cleopatra’s Needle, not the monolith from 2001.
Excellent all-around, there’s a part of me that was heartbroken when the vinyl didn’t arrive with a lyric sheet. But there’s a part of me that was relieved. A reviewer to whom, once again, I’d give credit if I could recall his or her name or where I read his or her essay, once said of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless that it’s like an extraordinarily beautiful boy or girl seen across the room at a smoky party. Just like you’d want a closer look at this magnetic creature; that album’s sound makes you want something that’s exactly the same, but just a little more. But such a thing isn’t possible; if you get closer to that boy or girl, you start to see flaws, you begin to see things that were different or better in your head. Within and Without is similarly enigmatic. It sounds to me like “Canzonetta sull’aria,” from Marriage of Figaro, sounded to Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption: “I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.” Within and Without is an excellent record, and if I find a lyric sheet, I will read it. But there’s a piece of me that hopes I never do. Within and Without is already sort of perfect the way it is.
In early 1995, the female lead from an opening band for Marilyn Manson (I don’t recall whom) took the tee shirt off of my back and signed it. I was sweat drenched, which had made my mascara run; black liner was smeared from wiping my eyes and my blackened lips had cracked and looked chappy. My dyed hair hung in clots. I wore combat boots and military-issue overboot gaiters, leather pants you could probably smell from the outside, and a fishnet shirt. I shivered while I waited for the return of my outer shell. When she passed it back, the singer, she kissed me gently on the lips and said, “You rock, kid.” The autograph read, “Back in the day, there was goth. I loved goth. I love you.” This was the age before Hot Topic so, admittedly, I was something of an anomaly. Listening through Cold Cave’s Cherish the Light Years, I felt the same way about the record as that singer claimed she did about me. And I missed my long hair, lipstick, and nose ring.
Once again, the album’s cover accurately portends what’s coming. The music is darkly sexy and the sort of sound implied by “goth” when the word was more associated with Joy Division than Slipknot. The LP combines the best of Depeche Mode, The Cure, Joy Division, and Pretty Hate Machine-era Nine Inch Nails. Synth notes turn sour; some tracks (opener “The Great Pan Is Dead” is the album’s most straightforward and raucous song) are aggressive and frenetic, but never not danceable, and all the while everything is shrouded by a veil of gloom. It’s a record on which 75% of the songs would thrill the guy you know who still wears mostly black and a wallet chain even though he’s aged way out of that being appropriate; and yet 75% of its songs would also please the twenty-something club-going young lady who just wants to put on something gaudy and go out to drink cosmos, and do some dancing with the girls.
Lyrics like “I feel guilty being alive/ when so many beautiful people have died”; “Forever haunted by the roads I know/ If not above, then I’ll see you below”; and “They said the meek shall inherit the earth/ oh, god, that seems like so much work” not only belie the idea that the gothiness of the act means it’s all style and no substance. They also make me positively miss the black vinyl and clove smoke my angst-ridden adolescence (not something that comes easy to me). Importantly, like Blouse above, the work isn’t purely derivative. Wesley Eisold (the soul of Cold Cave) has created something new here, though to do so he definitely strip-mined the past. But this record could not have been made in 1984. Nor could it have been made in ’94 or ’04. And it’s not for the angsty teenage version of me. No, Light Years is an album for adults, adults who have grown tired of living in the future (because, let’s face it: if you were between ten and fourteen years of age in 1990, iPhones at least sort of make you feel like you’re on Star Trek); it’s an LP for people weary of the false hope the computer/internet age keeps insisting is warranted. Thus, the digital instruments often sound flawed and the tone of every song is a sort of desperate disappointment.
But despite this inherent darkness, Light Years fights a decent fight with Cults as Most Fun Record of 2011. I don’t dance. I’ve never danced. But Cold Cave makes me wish I did.
At first, I believed this LP to be excellent simply because it was unexpected. It came from the farthest reaches of metaphorical left field. I’ve got a decently wide-ranging palate, and it’s still not the sort of thing I’d ever expect myself to buy. When explaining it to others, I’ve strung together the adjectives “syrupy,” “depraved,” “Canadian,” “lo-fi,” “indie,” and “R&B”—which is something, upon reflection, that I never expected I’d have to do. And so I naturally thought its appeal was rooted in novelty. It is not.
Sampling both Siouxsie & the Banshees and Beach House to great effect, the music itself is stellar; syrupy indeed and occasionally glitchy, but never without a groove. It stretches and echoes across minimalistic spaces—in some spaces, the record seems much more heavily influenced by ambient electronic acts than traditional R&B. Abel Tesfaye (the man behind the record) occasionally pitch-shifts his voice intelligently, until it is simply another instrument. With this soundscape, he affects a mood to appropriately accompany his lyrics—lyrics which are testament to the variegated grotesqueries that can accompany first-world ennui. 75% of pop music is about sex and drugs, sure, but in the case of House of Balloons, the feeling of postcoital sweatiness and a lightheaded, heavy-chested high cannot be divorced from the experience. The music feels like what the words which surf atop it describe. As I said several times above, I’m first and foremost a lyric man. But fascinatingly, I feel that I’d react in fundamentally the same fashion to an instrumental version of House of Balloons.
Describing James Blake, I provided a non-depravity-related metaphor for describing the record because, if you don’t know what feeling pleasantly high is like, you’ll have had no idea what I’m on about. House of Balloons requires no such secondary metaphor, because it doesn’t require the first. The lyrics are about overindulgence in sex and drugs and depravity, and the music unmistakably feels grimy, it feels like the kind of sex that might prompt postcoital shame (opener “High for This” boils down to “I know you don’t usually do drugs, but I’m going to fuck you in ways so intense and perverse that you’re probably going to want to get high beforehand as a precautionary measure”); it feels overindulgent and lonely in places (sometimes at the same time); and it feels desperate, insistent, and dizzy quite often. I’ve never stayed up for days on a cocktail of ecstasy and oxycontin while embroiled in what amounts to an orgy, a Bacchanal, but after hearing this record, I can’t help but feel like I have. That’s how effective Tesfaye is: after listening to House of Balloons, I feel pretty sure I can recall moments in my life that never actually happened. Impressive, to say the least.
One final note I feel suits the record well: I was blasting it after hours at my restaurant. I was alone; the lights were dim; I was sipping tequila. I may or may not have bothered with a glass; I was perhaps just clutching the bottle as I laid on my back—recumbent, half off the concrete surface of the bar. I was singing along to its seventh (and best) song, “Coming Down” (chorus “I always want you when I’m coming down” explored in detail here). A coworker came in and witnessed this; someone else slung her a drink and they stuck around a while, to the end of the record and, I believe, through its first few tracks as, after it ended, it began to repeat. Excepting to drink and sing, I never moved. The next day she came to me and said, “You were pretty messed up last night, huh?” I agreed. And then she said something I will never forget.
“You know, I always knew you were pretty depressed, even though you’re tons of fun to go out with. But until I heard you listening to that record, I never really understood how sad you must actually be.” Under all the depravity and often despicable overindulgence, there is an undeniable and immutable profound sadness. It wasn’t the booze; everyone I work with has seen me over-imbibe. And it wasn’t the sloppy, recumbent position; I’m sort of notorious for getting myself comfortable in odd places. It was the record I was playing, participating in, that conveyed to her some important truth about the core of my being, my not-so-secret-but-I-guess-more-intense-than-I-let-on malaise. That’s the experience of House of Balloons.
2011′s only five-star record (though there were a few four-and-a-halfs) never takes a misstep. From the echoing choral vocals of sparse, simple opener “You Can Count on Me,” through the grating and pace-making intermission of “Drone,” all the way to the spacey denouement of “Benfica,” Tomboy is a work of pure decadence. Sacrificing only a bit of the richness of the layer cake that was 2007′s critically acclaimed Person Pitch, Noah Lennox manages to create a dense record with the skewed pop sensibilities of Animal Collective’s (his other project) also-lauded Merriweather Post Pavilion. Lennox made much, during the lead-up to Tomboy‘s release, of listening to Nirvana records and wanting to produce something simpler that his previous baroque work with the rhythm-driven tendencies found in a lot of rock and roll. It was ten or twenty listens in before I began to see just how, but this is that record. As such, Tomboy is one hell of an accomplishment.
Excellent lyrics are almost indecipherable in a number of cases—sometimes due to the stretching of syllables or the crunching of them—but Panda Bear’s signature Brian Wilson-like harmonies allow them to work as well as ambiance as they do when heard as more traditionally expositive text. But when one can catch them, they’re wonderful. “Is it the wise who know what wisdom is?” asks “Surfer’s Hymn,” as waves crash in the background, beneath what sound like mechanized wind chimes. “And when/ I slow/ it down/ it’s clear/ it’s how/ it’s what/ they don’t/ say that counts,” proclaims standout “Slow Motion.” The eerie somberness of “Scheherezade” makes the statement “I see it all the time/ though I might not desire./ But if I could do/ then what I would do/ to you” both romantic and discomfiting. In “Last Night at the Jetty,” Lennox addresses the person to whom he sings: “Didn’t we have a good time?/ I know we had a good time.” Later, he asks himself, “Didn’t I have a good time?” quickly following the question with “I know I had a good time.” The doubt, the self-deception in both statements is palpable and eminently relatable.
But the music, too, is unforgettable. Panda Bear managed to make that rock-influenced record without, for the most part, using anything that really resembles rock instruments. Drums are muted, usually; in the beginning of “Jetty,” they sound like a mashup of clapping hands and cannonfire. The piano of “Slow Motion” sounds like I’m about an hour into a decent LSD trip. And is that trembling sheet metal I hear in there? Is the bass of “Friendship Bracelet” a fuzzed out bass guitar? Is it an upright? Is it synthesized? I have no idea. But it’s wonderful. I had no idea under what genre I should file Panda Bear’s other records (for the convenience of easy location in my iTunes library, not because I think everything must fit into a neat little box). I’ve never really solved that problem. Tomboy isn’t as complex an affair as Person Pitch, or as abstruse and effort as Young Prayer. It’s not as synthpop as Merriweather Post Pavilion or any other traditionally synth-heavy record and I’ve never understood anyone who called Lennox’s Collective “freak folk.” It’s not really lo-fi or bedroom music and it’s not Neon Indian/Washed Out-brand chillwave. So what the hell is it? Tomboy manages to indeed be best described as an indie rock record without being much like any other indie rock record in my collection.
Douglas Adams once said of The Beatles, “The next exciting thing was that they kept on losing me. They would bring out a new album and for a few listenings it would leave me cold and confused. Then gradually it would begin to unravel itself in my mind. I would realize that the reason I was confused was that I was listening to something that was simply unlike anything that anybody had done before…The Beatles were now not just writing songs, they were inventing the very medium in which they were working.” While maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement regarding Tomboy, the sentiment is very much the same. I listened to this album seventy times (that’s not hyperbolic) in 2011 and I feel like I’m just finally getting a handle on it.