God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
And make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, from Rilke’s Book of Hours
It’s all in the name: “Soused.” Plunged. Immersed. Soaked, in thunder and dark images. Obsessions and digressions, twisting themselves into knots. Two great musical rivers—Scott Walker and Sunn O)))—finally made one dark record together. Don’t think you’ll have an easy listen with “Soused” (4AD, 2014). This one is difficult.
Just when you thought your exploration of their music couldn’t get more daunting, you’re faced with the sheer power of Sunn O)))’s guitars, which on their own produce enough emotion to overpower even the most compelling lyrics. And while Scott Walker has been drifting for years toward a more operatic vocal approach, allowing for periods of calm better suited to soft orchestral landscapes, he still needs his gothic baritone voice to dominate here, adding his distinctive overtones to every song.
And yet, as the ultimate super group of darkness, Scott Walker and Sunn O)))’s Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley found a way to balance their egos and desires to make a meaningful, if one-time, statement together. I like what they’ve done with the place, but a huge question lingers: Just how many times will I want to listen to this record?
The music press is understandably beside itself over “Soused.” Why did this happen? Why did it take so long to happen? Is there any way to confirm how this record came to be made, or who approached whom? Is there any point in speculating? Maybe a better question would be: Is this a meeting of equals? Both Scott Walker and Sunn O))) are journeymen artists, though not of the same generation. Both have succeeded in carving out distinctive experimental music spaces for themselves. Both share a lean aesthetic. The best Sunn O))) records (and tracks) have minimal or no lyrics, with guitars alone carrying the full weight of their intended expression. Their treatments play tricks on the mind. For example, it’s easy to think of ØØ Void (2000) as having lyrics, or “Monoliths & Dimensions” (2009) as being a seamless blending of their version of traditional religious/archaic/choral/chant music sung by metal monks, who happen to play extremely loud guitars when they pray. Scott Walker has been building ensemble bands for years to create difficult-to-define soundscapes for each of his records. His voice, his lyrics, which swing between avant-garde poetry and traditional song lyrics, drive the direction and texture of each record. They speak: Sunn O))) with guitars, Scott Walker with voice and poetry.
Ours being an age of extremes in art, a golden age of violence porn in film and in music, means the sadomasochistic and violent (self-harming?) undertones of “Soused” (how many people write songs inspired by the legend of Herod the Great and hiding their babies?) must certainly be exciting to many. Lines like “A beating would do me a world of good” (from the opening song, “Brando”), or “Red, blade points knife the air./All night he sees it constellating his thought….” (from the song, “Fetish”), cut two ways, both obsessional and disturbed (serial killer?), as well as guilt-driven puritanical (sinner?). Just how deeply you want to allow these images in is the question. For the artist, creation is an imperative, regardless of where it springs from or where it leads. For a listener, it’s about choice—do we want to go there, too, when we don’t have to?
Years ago Scott Walker said in an interview that he doesn’t write songs for pleasure, and none of the songs on “Soused” could be accused of cheer. Which makes this a heavy record celebrating dark human impulses and desires. It’s a meditation on being plunged into psychological spaces some might find too challenging to visit. I suppose it’s a bit like the brief but elemental poetic enigma first expressed by the Roman poet Catullus: “I hate and I love. Why? I do not know.”
In art, sometimes we get just the questions. This meeting of two rivers is now complete. What they’ve left behind is a dark puzzle that will grow only more complex. Art fuels art. A record from Scott Walker and Sunn O))) was probably inevitable, given their shared affinities. Speaking as a fan, I’m glad to have witnessed this meeting of minds, of rivers, but I’m not sure how many more times I’ll be able to listen to some of these songs. Some records are simply difficult.
I buy music. I buy a lot of music. Frequently labeled as a sucker by those who never pay for any music, I’m still buying music. Most of what I buy comes from small, local record shops. I spend several thousand dollars every year buying new music. Mostly I buy vinyl LPs, but I also buy music in other formats. Most of what I buy is new, but I also frequent ancient small shops that sell collectible older recordings. I buy 45s, 33s, 78s, and I’d buy cylinder recordings if any of the shops I visit sold them. I’m saying this because musicians and shop owners need to know there are people like me in the world, and I’m not alone! People like me feel a direct connection to the music we love, and are willing to pay for it precisely because we think about the artists who make the music we love, and because we feel a special bond with the small retailers who work so hard curating their inventories, finding us the treasures we seek. I think being a recording artist must be the highest artistic calling ever, and the artifacts of their creation are irresistible.
Music, for me, is life. It’s a spooky cool combination of personal experience, emotional confluence with another’s life and art, poetry, visual art, storytelling, and… communion. A vinyl record is like a sculpture that makes sound happen when you put it on a turntable. Think about it! It’s sound frozen inside a vinyl sculpture. The jackets are like books, often with thousands of details written down about the bands, the songs, the history, pictures, and the endlessly evolving processes of making records. Music released as an object is spiritual and when it’s done right, it transforms everything in your life: my attitudes about my own life, how I want to live my life, and how I want to fit into my world are all shaped by music and recording artists. Music makes me laugh. Music makes my heart ache to the point I cry. Music makes me feel. Music makes me care. I play music and make connections in my mind that I simply cannot make without it. That’s value worth paying for.
Not all music fans steal music from the internet, regardless of what some record executives say (to justify, I might add, more often than not, their refusal to pay their artists any royalties). I canceled my Spotify account because they don’t treat musicians fairly, either. Instead, I spend my days in my studio surrounded by my precious vinyl records, books about music, CDs, posters, old radios, old stereo gear, everything related to the music “industry.” Everywhere I rest my eyes, I’m looking at an object related to music and its history. And I feel… grateful. Every artist I see perform live, if I get a chance to meet them after their set at their merch tables, I say thank you. And I mean it. I even buy second copies of LPs I already own if that’s all they have for sale on their merch tables, just to leave a little extra money with the band. True story.
Vinyl records represent the ultimate freedom in music for me because when I purchase one, I can enjoy it on my own, for years and years. If I can get a signed copy of a record, it assumes a position of high honor on my shelves. I can play my records, in any order I choose, and my playing remains personal, where I can take time to experience the truth behind real creatively. I’m proud to buy records. Of course, I have no idea if all the money is getting back to the recording artists, but I want artists to know that I care, and I happily pay for the pleasure I get from their remarkable work.
I don’t feel like a sucker. I hope both recording artists and small record-shop owners feel just a little of my devotion. I pay… because I love.
Entering the world of Justin Townes Earle is always a dark journey. The lives of the people who emerge from his songs, record after record, live and die in borderlands, just out of sight of hope and happiness. Some of their hardships are self-made, others are just fate, caught in the timeless cycles of hard times. Some are lost in love, others are drinking and sinking fast, leaving notes and disappearing out windows or into dark waters. His latest record, “Single Mothers” (Vagrant Records, 2014), is filled with worry. But beware, Earle is a master fiction writer. It’s a serious mistake trying to divine facts about his personal life from any of his songs. It’s a subject that incurs his bark, and his bite, in interviews. The novelist in Earle is what propels his work into such successful emotional spaces with so much force. Even from New York, Earle keeps pushing his modern Nashville sound into rootsy new spaces, keeping to tradition, but forever searching and trying new textures.