After last year’s El Chan, The National’s Bryce Dessner makes another foray into the world of contemporary classical and post-minimalist composition in the form of When We Are Inhuman. For When We Are Inhuman Dessner balanced the instrumental prowess of Eighth Blackbird with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s folksy songcraft to create an LP of nuanced and stirring compositions. Illinois-era Sufjan Stevens is the most obvious comparison here - indeed, the link is so strong that there’s even a song on When We Are Inhuman based on that record’s ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr.’.
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Will Oldham and Julius Eastman are, apparently, "kindred spirits". Well, extrapolate from that statement what you will. Eastman lived a tempestuous and tragically short life in which he fantastically captured the essence of sheer effervescent, unadulterated joy and bottled it for our enjoyment all these years later. He left us in 1990. ‘When We Are Inhuman’ follows in the long wake of 1970s Minimalism; for this record Oldham and Dessner have brought in their songwriting (and preoccupations with violent death) so that elements of gothic folk and what Greil Marcus called "the Old, Weird America" are woven into the fabric of classic ensemble music.
I get a feeling this record may go some way to polarizing people; people who are interested in the music of Will Oldham in particular. I straight off loved it from track one though: on ‘Beast For Thee’, a reworking of a favourite, the Bonnie voice is indeed lovely and supple; check the way he drizzles, melts and drips into those sinuous grooves of malleted xylophone-polyrhythms just like butter on a toasted pitta. And on ‘New Partner’ he sounds exultant, jubilant, ecstatically soaring all over Eighth Blackbird’s finely-balanced ensemble of strings and woodwind and Dessner’s sympathetic guitarwork.
Time for a seriously sinister intermission: ‘Underneath The Floorboards’ ups the bleakness quotient with an instrumental which follows in the murderous footsteps of Sufjan Stevens (‘John Wayne Gacy Gacy, Jr’ from Illinois). Next, ‘One With The Birds’ is musically lovely and very nearly kind on the ear -- but I keep expecting a Tom Waits growl to leap out of the headphones. ‘Banks of Red Roses’ is a pretty tasty / pretty unnerving slice of gothica pie. And finally... ::Trevor McDonald voice:: tucked away at the end of the record, just like those little end-piece moments of whimsy on ‘News at Ten’, is this bubbly version of Eastman’s ‘Stay On It’. A deceptively light treatment, recorded live, it’s a 16-minutes-plus rendition which still works in, around and outside of the original work’s political charge -- helped no end, of course, by its masterful compositional framework.
Worth the wait? Why yes, it really was.
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