“Mary had a little lamb, its fleece electrostatic
And everywhere Mary went, the lights became erratic.”
—David Foster Wallace (from Infinite Jest)
There’s an irresistible temptation to mention important literature and literary figures when it comes to reviewing the songwriting of Owen Ashworth. This makes him one of the most fascinating (and perplexing) modern recording artists to talk and read about. Whichever of his bands and records you choose to consider, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone or Advance Base, his latest creative venture, Ashworth garners impressive literary comparisons and faint praise in equal measure.
Ashworth’s work is respected. But his records seem to receive mediocre ratings by industry buzz masters. Or worse, he’s given patronizing or grudging recommendations that hardly inspire you to dash out and get his latest LP. It’s almost as if his writing style, very much in the dark (and similarly humorous or satirizing) tradition of author David Foster Wallace (to make yet another lofty literary comparison), attracts derision. Each new record raises hopes, but they mysteriously fail to fulfill the standards of most of his critics. How he misses is always ambiguous. It’s like the work connects, but the artist himself pisses people off somehow.
Thing is, we secretly all hate mirrors, even as we need them, in music and literature, to see ourselves. Mirrors make us feel rightly or wrongly judged. And Ashworth can be the saddest mirror of all. In the 1930s, author and peace leader Vera Brittain wrote about how lives lived in close and stifling proximity long for comfort, but thinking too much about reality can get in the way of living comfortably. The alternative: Stay put, don’t think. It’s still true: For some people, too much thinking only means trouble in paradise.
And that’s Ashworth’s challenge, song after song, record after record as he writes of troubled waters rising in quietly desperate lives. The people in his latest songs on the elegant new “Nephew in the Wild” (Orindal Records, 2015) are trying (in vain) to get clean, or signing leases and fighting with their landlords, or fixing up rusted out cars that just wind up on blocks in the backyard, or getting married too young and to the wrong people, or worrying about abusive pasts and dead-end jobs, or raising kids alone, all while praying for a world that still believes in prayer. Ashworth’s songs are about people thinking too much and paying too much. The songs obsess over the small things, but nothing quite works out. But along the way there are brilliant moments of wisdom and even humor, all of which makes for touching social commentary. Like this, from the song “Pamela”: “Your dad was seventeen/& dumb as a drum machine… Your mom was sixteen/& sweeter than saccharine….”
Every song on “Nephew in the Wild” fits together like an extended script, scenes about searching for missing lives, missing loves, and missing hope. They carry the load together. Even Ashworth’s signature lo-fi approach confounds some critics. His sound is a smart framework to keep things simple. The music is about the story and the feeling, narrowing the focus to close-ups and memorable fragments. His simplicity takes some things out of the equation and makes space for others.
In Ashworth’s universe the random events of the present predict the future, which makes the smallest things harbingers for troubles ahead. Just imagine if a song like his “Summon Satan,” played scratchy, like on an old vinyl record in another room, were to be used at the ending of a particularly dark episode of “The Walking Dead”: “You can worry about the future/You can worry about the past/You can worry about how long/this curse is going to last.” His is a warning of unstoppable terrible things to come. Everyone would need to have his music because it sometimes feels so good to feel so bad. Ashworth’s darkness would at last be in focus. And everyone else would finally get it.
[Artist photos by Tom Cops. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]
On one hand, the band appears to be doing what it always does by performing a cycle of interlocking guitar-driven compositions, this time collectively called “Kannon,” Parts 1-3, performed loud, raw, open, and richly textured. The entire album clocks in faster than some of their earlier studio offerings, around 33 minutes. They’ve also incorporated thematic lyrics, sung in a dense drone fashion by Attila Csihar, with words that connect their signature wall of sound with ancient historical and theological ideas of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, of the nature of suffering, and of sound perception as a vehicle to access the world’s lamentations.
To aid us in getting up and over all these etymological and cultural hurdles, the band commissioned several sculptures by Swiss designer/artist Angela Bollinger, lavishly photographed and reproduced on the cover and inside the gatefold jacket. These jet black crystalline forms seem to bow before and absorb all light. They also commissioned a lengthy, super dense technical essay, “Kannon/Canon,” by the controversial theorist Aliza Shvarts.
Had Sunn O))) made their starting point as a band one of Buddhist teaching through the use of loud electric guitars, I suspect the layers of high-level textual explanation wouldn’t be as necessary at this point in their career. We’d already be expecting another loud Buddhist koan. But it feels like Shvarts’ essay is out of place here, working too hard to connect a band with the Buddhist concepts behind the great perceiver of sound with emptiness, phonic excess with drone guitars, and feminism.
In the end, it’s about the music, and the evolution of the artistic partnership between Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson. Over the years their interests, artistic and collaborative goals, and commercial expansion into more than one successful record label have grown far beyond the scope of Sunn O))). The arrival of “Kannon” feels affirming that this legendary band will continue to come together from time to time, take risks and explore new ground as these artists mature.
However, it’s tempting to consider how this record would feel had the band not taken so many steps to explain and illustrate their intent in the gatefold. Their music, like meditation itself, seems designed to lead the listener to open up to new states of awareness and emotional response. Their guitars have always been a kind of chant, freed of cultural baggage and burdens. If you insist, their ongoing koan remains something more elemental: the search for something more intuitive, an authentic dialogue through guitars that needs no language or definition or defense to make its case.
“Kannon” succeeds in illustrating the progression of two pioneers of the art form. As an experiment in Buddhist teaching, the rewards remain too complex and just out of reach.