High density music is easy to make ~ just add more layers until all the levels are in the red. But quality denseness is far more difficult to achieve. Lawrence English excels in such ventures because he honors the nuances within and between sounds. His latest album delves into noise and micro-noise while interweaving subtle, nearly subliminal passages of melody and harmony, including contributions from numerous friends.
The title strikes what has become a common chord in recent months. Ever since the Brexit vote and the U.S. election, we’ve been hearing a unified chorus of dissent from musicians across the board. Of the hundreds of comments we’ve read from artists and labels, not one has been pro-Brexit or pro-Trump. In a diverse industry, this unanimity is remarkable. English describes “clouds of unease” that were gathering at the time of Wilderness of Mirrors, one that broke over the past year in news stories ranging from Aleppo to Black Lives Matter. We live in a dark world that continues to test our faith in humanity; English underscores the mood in his music, inspired by the writings of Lauren Berlant on suffering and power.
The message behind the music highlights the difficulty of reflecting politics in a non-verbal field. Not that we want lyrics; we simply question the extent to which English’s pleas will get across in an era when people may simply download or stream the music. So what do we hear in these sounds? We hear darkness, and oppression, and claustrophobia; we hear fear and punishment and perseverance. This last nuance, apparent in the plodding yet persistent tempos and the scattered yet salient bright chords, provides the key. Every listener knows the sadness of the world; most will be able to detect a tiny bit of hope in the midst of this maelstrom. Zero in on the compositional technique, and we find English working alongside friends ~ Mats Gustafson, Chris Abrahams and Norman Westberg, among others ~ changing his typical approach. The artist combats his pessimism about others by inviting others in. The approach may seem counter-intuitive, but serves as a metaphor. We can rail or we can cooperate. English chooses the latter path. Cruel Optimism refers to optimism dashed, but this need not mean optimism discarded; the presence of others need not be a double bind.
As the album ends, the clouds continue to gather. No answers, and little comfort, are offered. Yet there remains a sense that the listener has survived a storm. The next steps are to venture outside, pick up the pieces, and rebuild. (Richard Allen)
Digital version available now; physical versions 17 February