A beam of light bisects Tilman Robinson‘s face, offering a symbol for his music. Deer Heart may be half modern composition, half experimental, but the artist is no split personality; his musical halves form a unified whole.
One may be forgiven (we hope) for comparing Robinson with Ben Frost. Both composers are Australian, yet each has recorded in Reykjavik and enlisted the aid of Valgeir Sigurðsson. Each blends styles, the orchestral giving way to the restrained. The major difference here is that Robinson’s experimentalism is more assertive than aggressive; at no time does the listener feel in danger.
The construction of the album is of particular interest. Some artists prefer to start quietly and build to a grand finale; Robinson makes a grand statement, then shifts to nuance. The bulk of the drama is borne by the first two tracks. “Where We Began” emerges slowly with increasing orchestration, building to a fever pitch; “Pareidolia” pounces with anvil and claw. The former track has been the public teaser for a month, and makes a mean overture, but the latter is the album’s stormer. Step by ponderous step, a large animal approaches, accompanied by an entourage of bees. Military drums sound an alarm, as if the troops have been called in to deal with the crisis. When the percussion temporarily halts, revealing a heartbeat, the lines are drawn. Let the battle begin!
But then, despite the quickened pulse heard throughout both “Her Heart Was Warm (until it stopped beating)” and “Orison”, the music heads in the opposite direction. The strings grow melancholic, the piano pensive. This is obviously an album of life and death, but whose life and death? Given the fact that the pulse is Robinson’s, while the title includes the word “her”, it’s easy to surmise that these songs chart the rise and fall of a relationship. If so, the cover makes even more sense: cleaved in two, yet still whole, unable to keep the light from escaping.
Emotions battle for dominance, the playfulness of “In the Always” met by electronic tension. Organic / electronic; at peace / not at peace; and in the final track, “Yours, Deer Heart”, sonic stops and starts, a smooth flow interrupted, doubling back like unprocessed emotion. The early impressions of animal v. military become a metaphor: the dangers of the heart are more insidious. Only “Bathed in Her” offers a sweet ambient flow with no opposing force. Purposefully lovely, the track implies gratitude: either that of memory or that of acceptance. At nearly nine minutes, the track fills nearly a quarter of the album, but thanks to its penultimate position, it doesn’t dominate the discussion.
Sequenced differently, the album might proceed from soft to loud, light to dark, yet this is not the arc Robinson has in mind. Deer Heart unfolds in a more true-to-life fashion, jagged edges meeting smooth curves. At this point, we return to the title of the most assertive track. Pareidolia is the perception of patterns that don’t exist: three objects forming a face, two parallel lines a road. In our analysis, have we solved a mystery that doesn’t exist? If so, such attention only highlights the appeal of this deep, multifaceted release. (Richard Allen)
Pingback: ACL 2016: Top Ten Modern Composition | a closer listen
Pingback: ACL 2016: The Top 20 Albums of the Year | a closer listen