I have invested many hours’ typing into Antony Hegarty, the man with the golden voice. Even if you liked the wandering-vocal-over-haunting-drone pairing of “Dust And Water“, you may still be surprised and baffled by “Swanlights“, which is taken from the 2010 album of the same name. Backmasked vocals compete with a tightly-knotted bass-line, atop a creeping organ drone. Near the end, a connection is forged between the avant-garde and the sacramental, as a chorus of swooping Antonies bring the song to a teetering conclusion. There is no genre that captures music this impassioned and oblique; its nearest antecedent is the enigma of Alice Coltrane’s post-jazz, with its extraterrestrial and spiritual leanings.
I have my friend RP to thank for getting into Yo La Tengo. Until I started at university, I only knew of the band via their referential, reverential song- and album-titles (example: I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass). Then, I met RP, who plays cello in this band, and who lived above me in halls. We swapped mixtapes, and I had to up my game, naturally.
Yo La Tengo’s output vacillates between Beatles-y pop and Sonic Youth-esque experimental freak-outs. Then, in 2000, they released And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, which is possibly my favourite of their albums. It is an extremely quiet album, which undresses itself by degrees, without revealing everything. Built on ambient drones and oddly disembodied drum machines, its songs only rarely edge into livelier territory: mostly, it sounds like displaced children creeping around suburban homes (see the album artwork, left, which is the work of Gregory Crewdson). If that sounds too forbidding, consider that I would offer a similar description to the music of The xx. Also, you should know that the band has a delicious sense of humour (“When in Nashville, visit Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack” etc.).
The album opens with “Everyday“, which is the perfect point of entry. Leave your preconceptions at the gate, and step inside a microcosmic world of faintly dripping taps, electrical humming, the rustling of crockery in the dishwasher. Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, the married couple who are at the heart of the band, murmur nonsensical couplets, softly, in harmony.
“I want to cross my heart,
I want to hope to die.
I hear Kate Moss talk, she talks to me:
She’s looking for a new beginning, everyday.”
Halfway through, an insistent baritone guitar lurks in, and a theremin-like whistling drifts near the top of the mix. The arrangement sounds like it’s coalescing into a suburban nightmare, and yet each element remains isolated, dissonant and perpetually thrilling.
“I want this for my answering machine except it loops for 10 minutes and you never get to leave a message.”
— YouTube user Colunga210
People are sometimes confused when I describe music as being “scary, but in a good way.” To me, music that’s frightening and chilling is to be embraced rather than hidden, even if my initial reactions to such music can be rather severe. The first time I properly listened to Radiohead’s Kid A, I was reading Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass: more specifically, it was the chapter in which Will and Lyra travel through the land of the dead, in order to create an opening and thus free the millions of fading ghosts that occupy it. As I recall, the combination of words and music was pretty chilling. To be reading about the end of death, while listening to music that appeared to depict a post-apocalyptic world, was fairly overpowering, and now, whenever I listen to the album, I can’t help but be transported – in my mind’s eye – into Pullman’s equally startling vision.
Some years later, Radiohead’s guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, composed the music for There Will Be Blood – one of my favourite films in recent years. The film is terrifying, but in the abstract, because we are simultaneously horrified and glued to the character of Daniel Plainview as he tears up the land in pursuit of oil and wealth. The scene in which his first oil tower explodes is all the more memorable for the accompanying score, which borrows liberally from Greenwood’s own score to the arthouse film Bodysong. The track in question, “Convergence”, explores the phase music of Steve Reich, but with pounding drums and scattershot percussion in place of piano. What starts out as a tribal rhythm grows into a many-limbed, writhing beast of a composition, as all the diverse elements gradually coalesce into a solid beat. Set against images of a landscape that is literally on fire, the effect is exceptionally powerful.
Finally, 2008 also brought us Portishead’s return to music, with the dark, dark vacuum of terror that was Third. Beth Gibbons never sounded so tortured and fragile as on this record, particularly when her achingly beautiful voice collides with the band’s hypnotic, droning music. The album closer, “Threads”, is an undoubted highlight – over a spare and fluid guitar figure, Gibbons mournfully wails of being “always so unsure” before a repeated cry of “Damned one”. On paper, this may sound melodramatic and ridiculous; when heard, the song is almost nightmare-inducing. Eventually, marking the passing of the album, guitars and synths beat a crushing crescendo, which is turn dispelled by a droning clarion call, which sounds halfway between a Tibetan wind instrument and a dying synthesiser. You almost believe that the unholy racket (and I mean this in a good way) will never end. What a chilling cure for insomnia.