Untrue - Burial
Honey in the Rock - Blind Mamie Forehand
Weight of My Love - David Thomas Broughton
Burial's new album, Untrue (Amazon, eMusic), is a production of relatively few words. The legible ones are channeled via looped vocals of lost club divas, temporally dislocated soul singers and disembodied MCs who shuffle and reshuffle flashcards -- "I envied you," "you lie," "the way I feel inside" -- with a kind of intense randomness. These quotidian phrases scan of text torn from a hundred relationship articles in a dozen different magazines and tossed to the wind (or, of arbitrarily aggregated phrases from a thousand Myspace blogs). Considered with the music's bedemoned beats and underworldly pastiche of synths and reverb, they could be the psychogeographical signposts that signify Bitter Breakup Album. And wouldn't it be boring if Untrue were only that?
Several proponents of sonic hauntology -- a critical model that grafts a key trope of Derrida's critique of Marxism in Spectres of Marx onto considerations of music production modes and receptor response (I know, I know! I'll try to make this as painless as possible) -- have adopted dubstep and Burial as particular pets. (Dub reggae also gets favored status for reasons that will be obvious.) In addition to thoughtful fare, intra-blog potlucks have dished up some woefully undercooked speculations about what might constitute sonic hauntology, including silly lists of songs and artists with the word "ghost" in their name. Ghosts don't, as it seems pretty clear upon consideration, figure prominently in hauntology. Instead, the neologism speaks to something that is neither present nor absent, that collapses the ontological binary (Derrida, in fact, derived his portmanteau in part from "ontology"). Hauntology can explain an erased history that nevertheless leaves recurring spectral traces in the now, or account for how a potholed historical narrative produces, by its absence, meaning in the out-of-time -- or end-of-time -- present.
If you wanted to assert that hauntology sounds like a gussied-up version of the uncanny, or first cousin to various postmodern discourses, I wouldn't argue with you. It does seem to try to grapple with similar fraught and alienating aspects of contemporary life, particularly the decentralized, nonhierarchical ways in which technology disseminates information and we receive it. So yes, hauntology's probably a theoretical fad, or as k-punk puts it more polite, "the closest thing we have to a movement, a zeitgeist." Which doesn't mean it can't be productive of ... something, even something significant. In the latest issue of online journal Perforations, Ian Mathers theorizes the hauntological aspects of Joy Division in provocative ways (though his argument -- which seems predicated on your acknowledgment that Ian Curtis' vocals sounded ghostly before Curtis actually gave up the ghost -- teeters a bit). M Fisher (aka k-punk) performs a more persuasive reading of The Shining (both novel and film), and Sam Miller executes a marvelous Marxist theory-into-practice alchemy about gentrification that I wish was the rule with these types of intellectual exercises, not the exception.
But hell, nobody invests in so fragile a framework as hauntology without a concurrent and significant commitment to its poetic possibilities. This, I'll admit, is why I've been intrigued enough to troll these academese-spiked discussions for a couple months. I first encountered that Perforations issue the same afternoon I found the Valgeir Sigurðsson track I posted on Monday, and on cursory listening/reading, it seemed like serendipity. Hauntology, I thought, corralled "Winter Sleep's" eerie sonics -- specifically, those discordant sputters of noise that irrupt and threaten to rupture the melodic, soft-pattered whole (sort of like the teasing, yet benign threshold violations of poltergeists). But while the tract sounds unsettling and dyschronic, and Sigurðsson's production (he's probably best known for engineering Will Oldham and Björk albums) disinters some hard-to-place sounds, I'm now not convinced that hauntology brings anything interesting to this particular table.
Arguably, all multi-tracked productions -- or even anything mediated by recording technology -- are haunted by the contradiction of presence that isn't; they're performances that never physically happened as you hear them. But recordings that somehow foreground or acknowledge their placeless and timeless status, more willingly lend themselves to hauntological arguments. The hiss and click and pop of a pre-war blues record, for example, isn't contingent, but constitutive of it's meaning. K-punk argues when talking about Robert Johnson, the "'mythologized deep south' arises from the 'layers of fizz, crackle, hiss, white noise.'" So the blanket of fuzz on Blind Mamie Forehand's wonderful gospel-blues side "Honey in the Rock," (found on American Primitive - Volume 2: Pre-War Revenants 1897-1939, Amazon, eMusic) is as critical to the mix as her voice or the guitar. It's intrinsic to our own fabrication of "sincere" and "authentic." (Also, I have to mention that bell's ding ding. It always seems to me like the spectral nagging of repressed memories too terrible to articulate.)
Sonic hauntology can also be a useful way to wrap your head around Burial. Jeez, you could start with the (metal band-ready) name and proceed straight to punny persiflage about sonic resurrection. Or probably better, highlight the artist's shadowy identity (he claims that only a handful of non-family members in his everyday life know of his alter ego). Anonymity, in fact, supplies what could be necessary for a successful hauntological text: stranded and sourceless sound, sound produced by no one. And Burial supports this sense of absent presence by exposing the seams of his production process -- vocodered vocals that could be emanating from (if anywhere physical) a sewer tunnel, and hissy, crackling, patchworked soundscapes. "Untrue," makes me think of a beautiful face that has been disfigured and competently reconstructed by plastic surgery, but whose thin white scars and awkward spatial logic are visible in certain ephemeral light. The album, then, is uneasily beautiful, an elusive work of splendor and risk. And if not as explicitly political as Burial's first record (Amazon, eMusic), political all the same. Take a gander at the track names: "UK," "Homeless," "Dog Shelter," "In McDonald's," uh, "Untrue." Fangirl plots and connects some dots between Burial's aesthetic and an invisible London economy at phantasmal odds with capital's official "commodity urbanism." So yes, and without really getting too deep into it, this record can certainly be read as critique of New Britain.
But I'm not sure even Burial illustrates the possibilities of this theoretical schema quite as well as the case of David Thomas Broughton. Last year, I said this about Broughton's first effort (Amazon, eMusic): "Excessive and often unbordered, the record has inexplicable moments ... and says uncanny things that don't fit in any small boxes I have lying around." What I didn't unpack very well was why and how. The Complete Guide to Insufficiency is a single-take recording in which Broughton uses a sampler to loop back what he's just performed and layer the loops in waves of sonorous din. It's a dizzying, disturbing, emotionally gutting gimmick that conflates past and present and challenges spatial orientation. (And a good account of Broughton's live performance process can be found at The Daily Growl.) Improvisational chamber quartet 7 Hertz supports Broughton's voice and guitar on his latest release (Amazon), so he makes less extensive use of his trusty sampler. But in "Weight of My Love," the vocal sample, it's not the weight I carry with me, ghosts his immediate voice, the sputtering bass, moaning clarinet, keening violins. The delayed and doubled effect is eerie and gorgeous and, above all, metaphysically slippery. It asks us to consider what we're hearing and interrogate our own assumptions about how we construct meaning from the experience.
Well hey, whadya know? Carrie Brownstein's NPR blog is a lot of fun.