Versus iTunes #3: Slint’s “Spiderland”
Just hearing a small chunk of this album sent up all those fireworks in the back of my head, “Imminent enjoyment, James! Listen to those bleak and distant guitars played in repetition against vocals either plaintive or nonchalant, singing about stark imagery. This is to be your thing.” From what I have gathered, Slint’s Spiderland joins that list of albums absolutely adored by the indie crowd, at the very least, scraping its fingers against the top of the mountain where the sacred cows reside. This is a bit of a troubling prospect for me, as the way an album develops its legacy begins to affect the way people think about it, to the point where someone not enjoying it simply means they “don’t get it” and are therefore, deserving of attack. Look, I’m no different. Anyone who expresses a poor opinion of the Beatles in my presence better have a damn good reason backing up their dissatisfaction or else you’re about to hear what a tome of anger sounds like. It’s not right, but it happens. So as I write this preamble (I’m on my first listen of the night), I wonder, will this end up truly joining the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In An Aeroplane Over the Sea or Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, or will I not get it like I apparently didn’t with Bon Iver’s self-titled or Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation? Sally forth.
Spiderland is a very cold album, seemingly distant from any recognizable emotion. While we see small reflections in the sounds being made, there’s is an aesthetic beauty devoid of form. Yet in these quiet moments, those moments where as simple chord changes endlessly, you begin to notice different moments of clarity. My first came whilst I was listening to “Don, Aman" listening to the way the strings were struck in rapid sixteenth notes, changing to the next chord down the spectrum. The pattern continues for what seems like an eternity, broken up a bit hushed spoken words and an instance of harmonics, only to continue onward as if nothing happened. As the song continues, there is a moment of fury, the chords fuzzing out in a sharp and chaotic manner, only to return once more and then slow down, breaking the chords into their individual notes. It is something I find rare in music, to see this meditative form, where there is an understanding of the way we follow patterns, the idea that we become entranced in a tangle of simple sounds to the point where we are losing our sense of self and simply existing within the noise. Spiderland’s thrust seems to be this idea, that the noise you hear is not meant to be an emotional mirror like music is so capable of doing, but rather an indifference to specificity in favor of true feeling. What I am feeling while listening to the guitar parts is not nothing, but rather the natural ebb and flow of my own understanding of the sound.
While the denial of central meaning to the sound is a difficult endeavor that they are capable of pulling off, there is a tricky dual side of this and one I wish the band had played with more: the use of silence. In many songs in a similar vein, you are given time to be left alone with what we have heard, to understand the ways in which the ideas have built something. But aside from the “For Dinner…,” the band seems hesitant to ever give us a chance to believe in more than abstraction. It seems almost nonchalant, as if they are sure that we will automatically understand the chaos but since there is such subtle movement between the different elements of the sound, it ends up being a lost opportunity to understand the construction. We are watching a building being built from the ground up, but we must never look away and lose the individual pieces. This may be a bit bold, but I think it bites into the bigger picture of the song quite a bit, since I’m finding myself prone to understanding it in pieces rather than as something built to an end. While I do think the motion of the music from piece to piece lends itself to developing a distance of natural enjoyment, we have no way of finding a relation point to how the statement shapes ourselves, no chance to say “I have seen this or been this feeling.” It seems to be a tradeoff complexity and cohesion, one opening a glorious natural reverberation with the music itself and the other our way to access that complexity in a meaningful way.
I wonder then, are the lyrics then, how I am to find if this music has a heart? Out of curiosity, I looked up the lyrics to “Washer”: I know it’s dark outside/Don’t be afraid /Everytime I ever cried from fear /Was just a mistake that I made /Wash yourself in your tears /And build your church/On the strength of your fears.” As you can see, the song concentrates its imagery around a woman the singer is either in love or obsessed with, sensing the shifts in her emotions that might consume her. Later lyrics seem to speak of a hesitance towards these emotions, his wish to keep her while knowing it might take part of herself if he is able to do so. It’s well crafted and a rather clever take on a love song, but… well, you’d never get this from listening to the music. While this is one of the stronger sung songs on the record, its vocals approach this almost nasal whinewith every syllable articulated, but not in a way that seems other than rote. When the singer actually seems to be intent on expressing detail through his singing, it is usually done in this distant whisper, barely giving us the sense that the lyrics are of any importance. Much of the time it comes off as if the lyrics are secondary to the music, mere remnants of thoughts sprayed throughout the composition to give those moments a more weighty feel, but never seeming to actually be part of it. I’m really half and half on it, since it gives the songs such a haunting quality and makes you more prone to paying attention to the lyrics, but at other times I would say it actually lessens the gravity of the arrangements, taking further weight from their own hush beauty without ever giving a clear sense that that is indeed the thematic concern.
I fear this is drawing me to an odd conclusion, one of those weird love/hate relationships. I love the way it is composed, full of all these beautiful moments that come straight to you as a point of light and encourage you to study them in order that it might be a fuller part of yourself, but at the same time, it is such a distant record that I worry that the indifference consuming it overwhelms its heart and denies us the ability to truly be into the music. It is almost a scholastic approach that I would encourage when approaching Spiderland, as you pour through, finding the moments that dazzle you but not concerning yourself with finding the humanity within.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: For such really simple guitar parts, they are beyond dazzling. I really cannot overstate how beautiful and haunting some of the melodies being played are, making use of the simplest guitar ideas but infusing them with enough rhythm and repetition to make something truly memorable.
Who I’d Recommend It To: Fans of John Cage, Mogwai, Sunn o))) (it’s really kind of the indie response to them) and The Album Leaf. Readers of philosophy and practitioners of Buddhism. Those seeking both desolation and sincerity. Fans of poetry readings and mystery readers. Those who don’t think a few haunting chords are enough for a song. People who have time to give it multiple listens, because it really needs it.
An Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10
Favorite Track: For Dinner…