Today’s contribution comes from D.Lippard…
‘Nostalgia is a common trope amongst purveyors of electronic music. From celebrated veterans Boards of Canada, through Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye’ to the less canonised (but more recent) Ghost Box roster or Mordant Music, there is a clear aesthetic that has developed in the synth-led spectrum for wistful, forlorn melodies and/or a cut & paste style bricolage approach to directly referencing the past via the use of sampling technologies. Even some of the earliest users of synthesizers from the progressive rock of the 70’s often laced their lyrical content (admittedly mixed in their success and reception) with a longing for lost innocence and a return to childlike wonder. Despite this long history, nothing prepared me for a record as intimately distant or alienatingly personal as the latest record by Telefon Tel Aviv, entitled ‘Immolate Yourself’.
To immolate is to offer the self up as a sacrifice, most often associated with suicide by setting oneself on fire. This is an achingly poignant title, since on previous records Telefon Tel Aviv were a two piece. ‘Immolate Yourself’ is the result of a grief-stricken Joshua Eustis, who has lost his writing partner Charles Cooper in mysterious circumstances, with reports ranging from suicide to accidental overdose.
Understandably, then, nostalgia plays a huge part in deciphering the subtext of this album. In a similar way to how Robert Wyatt’s masterpiece magnum opus ‘Rock Bottom’ (another album about loss and the struggle to find oneself again following a traumatic experience) begins with a swooning and hazy evaporation of traditional song form, the opening track on ‘Immolate Yourself’ (entitled ‘The Birds’) is the stand-out track and sets the tone for the emotions evoked throughout the procession of songs which follow. Trilling layered keyboards repeat a five-chord sequence throughout, all pitch-bent and woozy, complementing the breathy looped vocal line – “the Birds remind me of what we made/missed”. Instantly, both the lyrics and arrangement evoke the nostalgic element which anyone familiar with the group before this album and anticipated its release would be aware of. The song is highly reminiscent of the club hit this year by Deadmau5, a single called ‘I Remember’. However the pithy lyrics in ‘The Birds’ are far more restrained than the verse-bridge-chorus structure of it’s twin sister record, and serve as an excellent counterpoint to Deadmau5’s euphoric sense of interdependence between two close parties since the prevalent image is one of isolation and introspection.
This isolated introspection is a theme which then continues. The chords become sharper, more Gothic, and the rhythms alternate between jittery and pounding, which both serve to call a smacked-out 90’s-era Depeche Mode to mind. Vocal lines are either sparse or indecipherable/incoherent, but delivered in cantillating waves, saturated in reverb and echo. The sense of distance garnered by these production techniques magnifies the undeniable loneliness at the heart of Eustis.
Interestingly, Eustis decided to ditch the digital laptop-based production style which had formed the basis of his collaborative work with Cooper in favour of analogue equipment to make ‘Immolate Yourself’. This is probably why the album feels like a rock record, whereas they were very much in the electronica lineage as a duo.
It is certainly structured like a rock record, and this fact in itself is a clear move towards the home listening ‘album’ as self-contained artefact rather than a compilation of songs, but the sonics of the record also indicate that this may be a commentary on the state of electronic music today. The heavy reliance on shimmering keyboard textures throughout read like an homage to the golden electro-house sound of 2004-05, when the Get Physical and Bpitch Control labels from Berlin (Booka Shade, DJ T, Modeselektor and Ellen Allien in particular) progressed in their status as zeitgeist trend-setters. Clubs and parties in those years seemed to be populated by truly open and joyful revellers, at once mesmerised and exhilarated by the fresh blood that the Berlin scene had transfused into a previous sterile techno climate. Since that sound has been appropriated into the more mainstream ‘electro’ moniker which still lingers now, and diluted copycat records began to appear in the charts (examples being ‘Put Your Hands Up for Detroit’, Sam Sparro’s ‘Black & Gold’, David Guetta’s butchering of a classic Tocadisco remix with a sentimental Hed Kandi-crowd-pleasing full vocal) and the ‘Indie’ crowd decided to start taking ecstasy at the behest of Kele from Bloc Party, those same haunts now seem to be less a place of wonder and adventure than frazzled cattle-markets smelling of stale beer and amyl nitrate, where clubbers congregate just to make lazy passes at members of the opposite sex. ‘Immolate Yourself’ appears to pay homage to the golden Berlin sound by faithfully replicating it’s complex emotional depth, while also pointing a finger in the direction which the sound must inevitably take now in order to retain it’s magnetism.
It is this impression – that things that seemed fresh and full of life one minute can decay the next – that ties Eustis’ personal trauma with the ear candy of the production values to hand. It is like a template in hollowing out the form of dance music, so often energetically pulsating and openly about debauchery, physical contact and libidinal desire (a great example being John Tejada’s ‘Sweat on the Walls’). Those misty-eyed keyboards in particular dissipate through the speakers like tendrils emanating from a blind, crouching, lonely child as if trying just to reach something external to himself, to at least prove that there exists something beyond his alienated being. Yet all they end up actually touching is empty space, receptors for the dry ice of the dancefloor rather than the writhing bodies which populate it. ‘Immolate Yourself’ evokes perfectly the sense of alienation that occurs when the lonely mourner wanders from dancefloor to dancefloor seeking salvation, but only to find distance and isolation from others who seem so close physically but are in a different emotional galaxy. ‘
In tomorrow’s piece I’ll be reviewing Kevin Drumm’s Imperial Horizon. On Saturday, Broughall deconstructs the task, reforming it as ‘The Death of The Album?’. The week will conclude on Sunday by deviating completely; Silk and Dogs January ‘Provinces’ contribution.