A low, slow, bell tolls during the opening minutes of Lamentations. The album title references the Jewish book of mourning; the track title references John Donne. We are in a time of lamentation right now, and the bell tolls for all of us.
Lamentations is arguably William Basinski‘s best work since Disintegration Loops. Due to the current context, it may even be better: the composer shares his talents when they are most needed, with timbres fitting to the time. Nostalgia, disintegration and lamentation are all themes of the year ~ and happen to be Basinski’s specialties. The album comes across as a study in deep loss, but also in deep beauty. Some tracks approach haunted ballroom music without the supernatural; instead, the music comes across like the opening of an old photo album, the pages stuck together while the chemical colors are leached.
The literary references continue. “Paradise Lost” is 1:23, a fleeting thought, a memory slipping away before it can be fully recalled. But even this is balanced with a modicum of hope: the title of “Tear Vial” refers to Psalm 56:8: “Thou tellest my wanderings; put thou my tears into thy bottle; are they not in thy book?” But to demonstrate the complexity of emotion, “O My Daughter, O My Sorrow” is drenched with operatic vocals while recalling the exclamation of Jephthah (Judges 11:35), mourning a sorrow that could have been avoided. A late reference to Rachel Carson (“Silent Spring”) widens the horizon; we’re not just in the midst of a pandemic, but of climate change and climate denial, sparking the decidedly direct non-literary title “Please, This Shit Has Got To Stop,” a sentence difficult to pin on the elegant, intellectual Basinski ~ but these are desperate times.
Lamentations is empathetic, because everyone, everywhere is mourning something. Whenever we recognize the universal nature of the human experience, we are better able to understand not only our neighbors, but our global community. Our shared lamentation rises to heaven no matter what our religion of lack thereof. Whether we rail against God or the fates, our frustration is the same. We return to earth spent.
But as bitter as the writings of Lamentations may be (“How deserted lies the city … she remembers all the treasures that were hers in days of old”), a thin vein of hope continues to pulse (“Because of the LORD’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail”). In like manner, the longest loops (“All These Too, I, I Love”) provoke contemplation. Thoughts tumble until they cause madness or lead one to think in another way. The act of lamentation assumes there is someone to lament to: a presence, hopefully benign, alive and active despite impressions to the contrary. The title “Transfiguration” may refer to a Biblical event or the possibility of individual and societal change. The choral vocals offer comfort: an intimation of the divine. (Richard Allen)