It feels concerningly good to get properly obsessed with an album again, especially when you consider how many hours I spend each Monday choosing what records to write about. I’ve basically done feck all but listen to music since lockdown started but none of it seems to register – albums end up blending into one another, my last.fm charts all seem suspiciously similar, and revisiting an album from 2018 feels easier than pretending to follow whatever gets released. New albums take at least two or three listens for me to fully appreciate – this is a bit of a problem when I’m barely arsed to listen to something the whole way through once. It feels nearly exciting to find something that warrants the three repeat listens it takes me to understand it – I’m still in some state of stasis but at least it’s morphing in some way (and at least a new album cover will stare me down each time I open Spotify). I have something new to repeat over and over again – a new way to look back on and define this era of my life nostalgically once I’ve forgotten all the details that aren’t related to music. My lockdown has been defined through getting some minor excitement out of the utterly banal – whatever dopamine I do come across arrives from pretentious electronic music, the idea of having endless football highlight shows to catch up on, and getting more than two likes on a tweet. The other day I joked on Twitter about how lockdown killed any ambition I had towards life – my only real power fantasy at the moment is just driving to some random leisure centre while listening to an Oli Xl mix and I feel as if these rapidly lowering expectations help shape my relationship with music in a minor way. I’ve stopped wanting music to offer me some form of escape but to instead capture my full attention for more than five minutes – even if I only want that full attention solely so it’s slightly easier to write these music posts.
The tracks on Laurel Halo’s 2012 record ‘Quarantine’ don’t feel like actual songs and perhaps that’s why they’re so enthralling. ‘Quarantine’ feels like walking around in a game with an extremely low render distance – motifs fade in and out, synth lines repeat over and over, and song structures barely exist. At times it seems as if the musician accidentally left a majority of their mixer tracks muted – ‘Quarantine’ feels like 40% of an album in the best way possible, it manages to convey emotional intensity while sounding like the unfinished instrumental for an unsettling radio advertisement and that’s objectively quite cool. This intensity is mainly channeled through Laurel’s raw, emotional vocals – something which was inexplicably quite divisive amongst her fans to the point where Derek Miller basically begged the reader to “please get the fuck over your problems with her voice” in his ResidentAdvisor review. Halo set out to make “something more present” than her previous releases, initially planning on layering heavy amounts of echo, reverb, and autotune on her vocals but later deciding against it due to it sounding “supremely boring” and just leaving them as they were recorded. This creates an obvious contrast – powerful (and sometimes atonal) vocals take center stage over subdued, ambient production, creating something uniquely intense in the process. ‘Quarantine’ feels oddly cleansing (even if I doubt that was intentional) – I’m not going to claim that I’ve felt similar emotions to those expressed on tracks like ‘Years’ or ‘Thaw’, yet there’s something undeniably cathartic about hearing them get translated into sound. I think this is best exemplified through ‘Holoday’ – Halo’s vocals start out resembling a tacky RnB sample her Hyperdub labelmates would make emotional UK garage out of and then quickly morph beyond recognition. It feels as if the vocals on ‘Quarantine’ are controversial solely due to how scarily relatable they are – we’ve all had emotions that fall outside the chromatic scale and perhaps seeing that reflected back at us leads to some people reflexively cringing.
The cover for ‘Quarantine’ is taken from ‘Harakiri School Girls’, a painting by Japanese pop artist Makoto Aida that first appeared in 1999. According to the Jewish Museum of Berlin, “[t]his image is intentionally shocking: according to the artist, it combines beauty and violence in order to challenge deeply rooted ideas about Japanese beauty and bring to light elements of the grotesque”. This combination of the aesthetic with the mangled is the basis upon which this album is built – with Halo talking about the “brutal, sensual ugliness” of her vocals while being interviewed for FACT magazine. It could be argued that this notion of “sensual ugliness” is best captured by ‘Tumor’, one of the two tracks that I’ve constantly had on repeat for the past seven days. The production on this track is insanely serene, feeling like the experience of reading a book outside at half six in the morning and intermittently watching birds fly past – the track feels minimal yet clinical, I’m half convinced that the track solely consists of four loops (at most) yet I could loop any of them for hours without feeling bored. The vocals on this track are slightly more palatable and slightly less obtuse than the rest of the album yet emotionally devastating – “Caught behind a wall of tears / Distorted liquid image of you / The signal keeps cutting out but one thing is clear / Nothing grows in my heart, there is no one here”. In the same way that Aida’s work misleads with its vivid colours and manga artstyle, this song contrasts emotional despair with ambient production – it’s nearly a trope to praise a song for having bleak lyrics with a non-bleak instrumental but this song does it perfectly. ‘Quarantine’ is a living contradiction – an intense ambient album shouldn’t actually exist but Halo somehow manages to execute this concept perfectly. The intense emotions that fuel this record rarely make coherent sense so it’s only understandable that this record is hard to wrap your head around.
I originally planned on doing a much longer blog post but it’s just after turning 11pm so I’m going to end with this half-idea. This time last year I was obsessed with Jai Paul’s ‘Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones)’, a compilation of unfinished songs by the English musician. Jai rose to prominence with ‘Jasmine’ and ‘BTSTU’, two tracks which arguably defined the sound of the pop music of the last decade and lead to him becoming a posterboy for pretentious bedroom musicians across the planet. Jai went on to sign for XL records, working on a debut record that never ended up surfacing. In April of 2013 Jai had his laptop stolen, leading to unreleased demos of his being uploaded on Bandcamp as an unofficial album. This lead to Jai essentially giving up on music, vanishing off the face of the earth for most of the decade, and helping other young musicians through his work with the Paul Institute. Out of the blue last year Jai resurfaced, putting a slightly modified version of ‘Bait Ones’ up on streaming and releasing two b-sides from these sessions – ‘He’ and ‘Do You Love Her Now’. The main thing that gets me about ‘Bait Ones’ is how influential it would have been if it did get to release in the early 2010s – these tracks still feel fresh to this day and it’s nearly a crime that ‘Str8 Outta Mumbai’ hasn’t soundtracked multiple summers yet. The first time I listened to this album it gave me false feelings of nostalgia – it felt like looking back on memories of some mythical summer spent sitting in parks with friends. I think that it’s fair to say that Summer 2020 is a non-starter – AFTV videos will have to be recorded over Zoom, queueing up for the Penneys in Portlaoise will be the only real event, and we’re all getting sick of rehashing the same four gags about social distancing. ‘Bait Ones’ feels like watching energy dissipate, it’s sad that I got to hear the thing before it was meant to properly come out but at least it offers me a fantasy of another timeline. We’re headed into the summer of Jai Paul, whether that’s a good thing or not is up to you (mainly as it’s half-past eleven and I’m scared about my deadline).