Thursday, November 08, 2007


Image: ghostpatrol

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): "E
xcessive 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.


Blogger Jon said...

I like everything here except the explanatory note at the top.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Why? Not being an academic or pro music writer, I'm pretty rusty on this theoretical thinking. Seems only fair to warn people that they're in for some specious stuff. (But yeah, I can guess what you're going to say, Jon.)

9:26 AM  
Blogger emmy hennings said...

That David Broughton Thomas song is extraordinary. Thank you. I'm going to do my best to track his stuff down. More later...

4:41 PM  
Blogger emmy hennings said...

Oh dear. David Thomas Broughton. Other way around.

Hangs head in shame

4:43 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I'm always pleased to make a new DTB convert, Emmy. I think you're either utterly passionate about him or can't abide him.

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

brilliant post.

7:13 PM  
Blogger marathonpacks said...

this is brilliant, amy.

12:42 AM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

All this reminds me of the (excellent) pun on
"Haunted House"
("contemporary electronic soundswith a grotesque vocal palette.") in Pitchfork's review of the Knife.

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Jay said...

iTunes lists this album only as the ‘clean’ version. Does anyone know if it’s rated clean in lieu of lyrics, or is iTunes actually selling an edited version??

4:50 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Oh, interesting. I'm not sure why Untrue would need "cleaning." Considering the iTunes tracks are also DRMed (and low bit-rated), I'd say buy the CD or subscribe to eMusic.

Thanks anon and Eric. "Brilliant" is certainly hyperbolic (tho perhaps not in the context of the mp3 blogosphere).

Andrew, yes, Pytlik's "haunted house" is excellent. And a great way to capture the psychosexual creepiness of Silent Shout.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Jonathon said...

Isn't the better analogy that of the Cartesian spectre, the ghost of the subject? Burial is obviously influenced by Ghost in the Shell--"Ghost Hardware" & "Shell of Light"--I just don't see what Marx has to do with any of this. And no, hauntology isn't anything like a zeitgeist. I think this is a confused notion of the Hegelian Geist, which Ghost in the Shell equates with the Net.

I don't want to sound mean, but a lot of this writing is just bad, silly theorizing. I understand de-figuring the songs in order to explore musical potentialities, but that is a far cry from what is going on in these posts.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

First of all Jonathon, you're not being "mean." I welcome the criticism. But I think you misunderstand my tone (I can't speak for anyone I linked to). It was k-punk who used "zeitgeist"; I said "theoretical fad." This blog post is meant to be provocative, interrogative, not definitive. It's an exercise.

I'm as skeptical as anyone (and as I hinted, suspect this is just another way of talking about what we term postmodernism), which is why I took sonic hauntology out on the leash for a run. I could have better, more extensively applied Derrida's reading of Marx (crucially different from Marx) to the specific songs. And I plan to expand on DTB & hauntology & class & New Britain at some point. I focused on summarizing the concept and talking about the sound of the posted tracks because this is an mp3 blog and I try to be at least somewhat conscious of audience.

Bad, silly theorizing? You've obviously done time in academia and must know that most contemporary critical theory is bad and silly (not to mention, willfully abstruse). But academics and other thought workers need to constantly reinvent it to justify their paychecks. Fortunately, the bad and silly sometimes leave interesting residuals.

7:52 PM  
Blogger Jonathon said...

Hey! You are right, I conflated my frustrations from different blogs. I actually agree with virtually everything you say here, and with your skepticism. It was frustrating as a longstanding fan of DTB and Burial to see them reduced to a sort of ideological rendering.

In other words, I don't think your writing is bad or silly. Actually I'm very impressed by it. And agreed, most theory is bad and silly. But I do read it, and I do enjoy my fair share, when the ideas are used as tools and not permanent lenses.

I'm not tied up in academia, though. Never have been. I'm more disconcerted with it than this sort of theorizing.

Again, sorry for having you take the brunt of all that, it was more meant for the others. I will, though, take the time to briefly explain why I think a more traditional, Cartesian approach to Burial is worthwhile. If you don't mind!

I find it difficult to interpret Burial as a smattering of fleeting sounds and noises. Instead, I prefer to think of the music as a bevy of emanations flowing from a single mind. We are privy to this Cartesian Theater, to steal a phrase from Dennett, some of which we are supposed to hear, some of which we aren't. Burial's layering incorporates a consciously temporal approach at times. In one way the sounds are fossils. Early thoughts, emotions are buried beneath newer ones, and sometimes we are given clues as to how the layers developed.

An example from Archangel. Fans of the first album probably jolt when they hear the re-use of the sample "U Hurt Me" at the 3:06 mark. Brilliantly, the sample is juxtaposed beneath a more prominent, louder, "newer", more epidermal repetition of the line "If I trust you"--so we get the entire cognitive effect. Why wouldn't I be capable of trust? B/c You Hurt Me.

These examples abound on the new album. My problem is that many bloggers are privileging themselves over Burial in a way. I guess I think of each song as having a "speaker"--except, against the grain of traditional songwriting, the speaker isn't really just telling us how "he" is feeling. Burial seems to have found an entirely original way of expressing by way of showing rather than telling.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I like your reading and think it sounds reasonable. The Burial album is a rich text and supports many interpretations. But I think you're probably privileging yourself over the album as much as anyone. Which is how it should be. There are complicated reasons why a Cartesian framework appeals to/makes sense to you, just as there are personal reasons why hauntology attracted me (it jibes with certain theoretical approaches to which I already subscribe and has cool metaphorical possibilities).

9:09 AM  
Blogger Jonathon said...

Now you just sound didactic. I don't think I'm privileging myself over Burial by suggesting that he actually created his artwork.

Marxist critiques tend to reduce artists to components of a superstructure, if you want examples I'll give you hundreds of them. Though, I'm pretty sure you already know that.

Derrida only seems worthwhile to me to the extent that he respects people as beautifully contingent vocabularies.

The Marxist critiques of London, when connected with what Burial is doing (not is), seem interesting to me. I'm curious about how many cherry-pickers of Derrida actually read Marx.

From what I have read, Marx was trying to free the subject, not drown him in his chains, or under layers of sound.

And by "choosing" a Cartesian framework I was really just going with the evidence I've been given by Burial's artistic choices (song and sample content, titles), whereas "hauntology" just seems to be applying a "ooooooooooh" feeling to the way the music "sounds"--an approach that seems more open to critiques of "subjectiveness" than anything I've tried to do.

I guess I would describe what you're saying as anti-pragmatic. You admit that you select an approach for critiquing something based on how it fits with your pet theories, idea of "coolness"--I think criticism is more respectful when it attempts to net evidence from the artwork it engages.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Jonathon, I'm not going to debate what determines meaning in a text or defend the last 40 years of post-structuralist thinking. Sorry, don't have the time, energy or interest. We'll have to agree to disagree.

11:28 PM  
Anonymous nick07 said...

great album
interesting read
but 'intelligible' instead of 'legible' - latter refers only to written word

8:18 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Intentional. Metaphorical (the voices don't literally shuffle flash cards either). Plus, I liked the rhythm better.

9:11 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home