Expiration Compositions marks a slight turn for the Serein label, which we associate more with ambient recordings than classical. But the pairing is apt, as the prior works of Taylor Jordan (The Greatest Hoax) were also of a different pedigree. The addition of a string quartet is responsible for the new tone; credit cellist Mark Bridges, who is also half of High Plains with loscil. When death is the subject matter, nothing captures the mood like strings.
While this is a work about death, it’s far from morose. The liner notes indicate that the death is peaceful, and the reaction is gratitude for the existence of life. The album rests at the far end of the stages of grief, and seeks to uplift rather than comfort. While it covers the same territory as José Soberanes’ recent Our Gravity Ends, it approaches from a different angle. Shock is swapped with acceptance, panic with calm, sorrow with reflection. This is the sort of death we all desire for ourselves and our loved ones. She passed peacefully. Everything’s okay. She lived a good life. We’re all so grateful to have known her.
Only one track seems truly grief-stricken, and rests close to the center of the album. It’s also the most memorable piece. The title prompts speculation: “You Never Learned a Thing”. Is this sadness due to the fact that a loved one never learned before shuffling off this mortal coil? Or is a mourner caught off guard, unable to see beyond the tears? Either interpretation seems apt, and the confusion feels right. It’s okay to feel sad. There’s not always a silver lining. Even the label tries to split the difference, with oxymoronic pairs such as “brooding / hopeful” and “peaceful / chilling.” Ironically, the next track is one of the album’s simplest, bearing the title “It’s OK”. The quartet has receded from the front lines, allowing Jordan’s piano to take center stage. Seeing these words on the dashboard produces a sense of calm, even before the music has played.
One doesn’t write about death unless one has experienced death, so it’s likely that Jordan either grieved in a difficult manner or knew someone who did, and wanted to offer an alternative ~ not moving on, but balancing pain with perspective. The electronics grow more prominent in the late tracks, bearing brighter, happier tones. Maybe it will be okay. As the synths surge in “Just Passing Through”, one can imagine a soul pleasantly waving on the way to the next life. While one suspects such softness has been hard won, it’s still a welcome break from the wrenching music typically associated with death.
The album’s most soothing passage arrives at 2:22 of “Not Coming Back”, and works like a salve on a wound. The grieving listener may not be there yet ~ some may even feel a little anger, protesting, it’s not that easy. But Jordan’s message seems to be that centering is possible, that peace may come, that goodness still exists in humanity. The musician’s moniker seems to fight with this message, but maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe “the greatest hoax” is the supposed ugliness of the world; if so, we’re more than happy to embrace another work of beauty. (Richard Allen)