josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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7 Jul '24 01:24:30 AM

Atop a massive tree stump, a Lime scooter on its side, as if a sacrifice.

24 May '24 09:09:07 PM

'Like jokes, generally, slang is unsigned.'

12 Apr '24 05:24:27 PM

'An insipid spiritualism supplants a decadent materialism.'

10 Apr '24 05:45:54 PM

Most philosophical writing produced by academics is like business-to-business communication. Yet the customers of these philosophers are never served; they are always wrong.

5 Apr '24 06:16:59 PM

I’ve learned some language at distinct points in my life. I never took a foreign language earlier on, so had to take some in college to satisfy a language requirement that most people got covered with credit for their high school Spanish. I opted for Russian and met the challenge erratically, with a couple few years of courses spread over my whole undergraduate career and extending into grad school, since I audited a bit when I had moved on to a math master’s. I never got to be particularly fluent at what I could manage, and I stalled at right about when my vocabulary was supposed to be expanding a lot to enable me to deal with written Russian. But one of my teachers, a native speaker, took an interest in me, and gave me a job assisting her with some translation of literary scholarship. We would sound out the nuances of meaning for what she had already worked up. In those years I was quite interested in the margins of the language-learning experience, acquiring books and records and consulting dictionaries and all that—I remember hunting down some Chekhov plays in original text, listening to Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (what all I remember at the moment: gribki, gribki!)—but I suppose it was more like a preparation for me, instilling interest in language and culture, than it was actually serving to establish an ability to speak and read.

The passion that took me into and carried me through graduate school, once I switched to philosophy, was Wittgenstein. The nature of my project, which focused on his writing as writing, required that I at least be aware of what that writing actually was in its original German, although due to quirks of its entry into the world it was extensively available in dual-language facing-page translations and the translations (of the later work I was interested in—there is persistent ambivalence over how to render the terse German of the earlier Tractatus into English) were deemed perfectly adequate by most philosophers. At some point, whether before or after my dissertation proposal I can’t recall, a friend observed that he always saw me carrying some book around but not Wittgenstein, which seemed to indicate a reluctance to write. I had read the Philosophical Investigations so many times, certain portions over and over endlessly, that I found it hard to see the text with unfamiliar eyes, to leave behind the scripts for what it was supposed to mean that I was acquainted with from the scholarship and from the general culture of reading Wittgenstein that existed among the philosophers I knew. I thought to get past this by looking at the German, but I found the constant availability of the English on a facing page too easy to fall back on. So I responded by getting hold of a purely German-language text and forcing myself to read it cold, with of course the memory of the translation always in the background. I think this proved to be a wonderful way to acquire a strong enough language skill to read with and grow from—for variety I moved on to Schopenhauer, which I used to reread a bit of every morning at the Hard Times over breakfast—and I still enthusiastically cite the experience when I want to encourage people to improve a language. Sometimes when I look back—heavy with regrets—at graduate school having basically taught myself to read German seems like the most valuable part of it.

It’s not exactly true that I taught myself (or that I ‘read German’ now—I can read plenty of it, for many purposes, highly sensitive to what it is I’m trying to read), since there were instructional books, some recorded lessons I never much took to, a German-for-grad-students short course I audited at some point, the kind designed to hustle people through the language requirements for Ph.D. programs that were by then nearly obsolete—but it’s true enough to my experience of learning. My knowledge of the text was crucial because it gave me a different level of comfort, of confidence about what didn’t make sense at the moment, so that I could go on with a good enough understanding. More than that, though, it gave me different grounds for caring about what the words said, about connecting them to my felt sense of meaning. I recognize that this is somewhat backwards as far as language learning usually goes, since the whole point of learning to speak first, or with priority at least over reading and writing, is that this grounds meaning in what the personal grounds of sense are in one’s first language (W.: ‘meaning something is like going up to someone’), in the gestural, relational, situational matrix of its use, in wanting to speak (French translation for ‘to mean’: ‘vouloir dire’), but all the same the felt sense of meaning I was most interested in was not so much the ‘five red apples’ part of it (as in the opening section of the Investigations) as it was the philosophical part, the part that was the first section of the Investigations. So it would be more to the point to say Wittgenstein’s writing, and caring about it, taught me how to read in German.

French has been a different experience for coming after all this, and for being easier, so much closer to English. But I also went at it differently. There were books I wanted to be able to read, some French I had already looked at, but basically I started with a very different register or level, at a different speed, by doing Duolingo’s French course on my phone during the pandemic. I was sick and laid up very early on, and for a while I was spending hours a day, literally hours, completing lessons. Duolingo is notoriously lopsided—it’s not ideal for training to speak—but it also enables all sorts of idiosyncratic unevenness in practice, or at least did before their recent revisions to corral people into narrower paths. Since I was practicing intensively the speed I was moving at mattered less to me, so also the repetitiveness, and for a while rather than moving on to new material at lower levels I was sticking it out with every single topic until it was exhausted, something I’ve gathered they don’t exactly advise as a best practice. Eventually, when lots of speech exercises were available to me, or the speed-conditioned drills, I was certainly flogging them far in excess of the normal expectation.

But it did its thing. It brought me to a point where I could read a lot of written French with pleasure and curiosity—importantly, even when I don’t follow everything exactly. I’m much more interested in my own experience with this language because my history with the previous ones makes the qualities of the experience of learning stand out more, be more available for reflection than frustration. Russian I associate with, among other things, the stultifying experience of sitting in the library media center, playing the audiotapes that accompanied the textbook for the first semester (which I got partway through before dropping, for the time being). Learning German, I read philosophy more than anything, and what I recall is more the frequency with which I would infer meaning thanks to the assurance provided by the predictably restricted vocabulary of philosophy and the logical patterning that lends supportive structure to its prose. In French it is much more often that I go by feeling, guess, tolerate vagueness (in what I comprehend, not in what’s there). Not knowing a language makes it hard to exercise patience, because without sufficient reward of sense, without ways to orient yourself and feel like you know where you are and where you’re going, you can easily resent every new absence or disappearance of sense, and this inhibits your generosity of mind and your willingness to prove to have been wrong (even to yourself, when reading—always conscious, no doubt, of possible situations of speech where one stands to lose face when incompetence is revealed). But with more experience and with a stronger stage of development it seems patience comes more readily; what I miss this time around I’ll get better at eventually.

One of the things I’ve been reading is Maigret novels. A while back I noticed my reading, on the level of sentence to sentence and word to word activity, going through a transition of phases, as it were. I care about getting the sound right and I do a lot of reading aloud. This seemed to correlate with a certain limitation of my pace at reading, as if I couldn’t read silently any faster than I could read aloud (which meant, roughly, speak or listen, too: my limit was tied to that index of my ability). One day, however, I felt as if my mind had relaxed; I could move along the text more easily, ‘hearing’ it without having to put as much distinct effort into subvocalizing or speaking it inwardly. And obviously this helped me with sense-making: the parts and wholes that I could take in with some sort of immediacy seemed to grow a bit.

I thought of this the other day when listening to Vieux frères, an album by the group (they say ‘collective’) Fauve, which is basically high-speed spoken word (bordering on slam poetry or rap at points) set to moody beat-curious contemporary indie. I like this and I’ve played it off and on, about 30 times (decent for me) in the four years I’ve had it, but I haven’t listened so closely that I can unlock the lyrics. Sung French is hard enough for the obvious reasons, but the velocity and volume of words here would be overwhelming enough in English. Anyway, as my ability has grown the record has grown in accessibility. I’ve been trying to listen to more spoken French, YouTube and podcasts and whatnot, to improve my listening, and I’ve found that like my reading, but in a way more irresistibly, it prompts me to speak in turn. I’ve read that the neural or brain subsystems for speech repetition, like speech shadowing or echolalia, operate more rapidly than recognition or comprehension of what’s heard even does, which is apparently explained in terms of what gives us our capacity for first language acquisition. What I noticed distinctly the other day was that I caught a lot more of what the Fauve vocalists were speak-singing than before, while at the same time the pace of the lyrics was overpowering my modest little ability for speech repetition. Yet it wanted to come out.

30 Mar '24 05:21:49 AM

The new reading group began with a recent book on Bergson by a political theorist, Alexandre Lefebvre. The group wasn't too fussed with the author's main scholarly business of supplying some Hadot/Foucault 'way of life' slogans to frame a reading of The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (pretty clunky execution, we all agreed), but they were intrigued enough to want to go on to read Bergson himself. I did learn something, though, from the author's use of Foucault's preface to Anti-Oedipus, of all things.

In that preface, after locating the book's era of publication a bit—the May '68 protests, e.g., as a return of utopian projects of the 30s—Foucault resists classifying it as a totalizing theory, in favor of characterizing it as an art of anti-fascist living. He sums up his little account with a comparison: in tribute to Saint Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, one might call Anti-Oedipus an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life. Something about the context of this citation in Lefebvre made me, where Foucault himself had not previously, take a look at the text. I suppose that since I'd read some of Foucault's writings using spiritual exercise manuals and Hellenistic sources as his archive, so I assumed that the de Sales was more of the same. It is; but de Sales emphasizes, and I suppose Foucault meant to highlight, that the Introduction is intended for the use of readers in a particular sort of political, or world-historical (the Counter-Reformation, I gather), situation:

'Almost all those who have written concerning the devout life have had chiefly in view persons who have altogether left the world; or at any rate they have taught a manner of devotion that would lead to such total retirement. But my object is to teach those who are living in towns, at court, in their own households, and whose calling obliges them to a social life, so far as externals are concerned. Such persons are apt to reject all attempt to lead a devout life under the plea of impossibility; imagining that like as no animal presumes to eat of the plant commonly called palma Christi, so no one who is immersed in the tide of temporal affairs ought to presume to seek the palm of Christian piety.' (de Sales, Preface)

De Sales goes on to recount the manual's origins in his effort to lead the spiritual direction of a woman with 'a great desire, through God's grace, to aspire more earnestly after a devout life', and thus his reason for constructing, as his book's addressee, 'Philothea' (officially universal, though from the looks of it, parts of the text are basically sermonistic, pastoral, and address others more specifically as required, sometimes men, sometimes women, for instance). The parts I've glanced at that are not focused specifically on spiritual guidance (that's earlier, the sort of stuff I associate with Ignatius of Loyola or Thomas à Kempis as schematizing a journey or retreat or course of progress, I guess) are more practically moral, addressing circumstances that would be everyday for de Sales' readers. Chapter 33 in the third part, for example, concerns dances, balls, 'and other lawful but dangerous amusements', the danger being a 'temptation' in favor of the general evil tendency of it all. It is helpful to have read a lot of Stoic philosophy for this, because it dissipates the churchy atmosphere that attaches to words like 'temptation': the core advice is still essentially to treat indifferent things indifferently and act so as to choose and strengthen, rather than weakening, personal virtue. Elsewhere, the topics are likewise adapted to a reader with a worldly rather than a religious vocation. For instance, the entirety of chapter 39, 'The Sanctity of the Marriage Bed':

'The marriage bed should be undefiled, as the Apostle tells us, i.e., pure, as it was when it was first instituted in the earthly paradise, in which no unruly desires or impure thought might enter. All that is merely earthly must be treated as means to fulfill the end God sets before his creatures. Thus we eat in order to preserve life, moderately, voluntarily, and without seeking an undue, unworthy satisfaction therefrom. "The appointed time has grown very short," says Saint Paul; "from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none… and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it" (1 Cor 7:29, 31).

Let everyone, then, use this world according to his vocation, but so as not to entangle himself with its love, that he may be as free and ready to serve God as though he used it not. Saint Augustine says that it is the great fault of men to want to enjoy things that they are only meant to use, and to use those that they are only meant to enjoy. We ought to enjoy spiritual things, and only use those that are material; but when we turn the use of these latter into enjoyment, the reasonable soul becomes degraded to a mere brutish level.'

Evidently in a manual of spiritual direction with a worldly intention, you can't not talk about fucking at some point, but prevailing standards of propriety and the devotional purpose at the heart of the book mean that you're bound do to so in this abstracted way, tantamount to cancelling each utterance, each act: live with your wife as if you had none, use the world as if you used it not, otherwise you'll entangle yourself with its love. In Lefebvre's reading (standard, for all I know), Bergson remains interested in a form of love that is as it were incapable of this sort of entanglement (compare to Epictetus on friendship, for instance: only the philosopher, the sage, can love).

It is interesting to me, in light of my route to this through a reading of Bergson, how de Sales refers only judiciously to love, for instance the love of God (e.g. in the book's final chapter, advising that readers make open profession of their desire to be devout, on the model of ancient philosophers who present as such socially 'in order to be left unmolested in their philosophic life'). I suppose both that it might be pedagogically useful to put a lot of practically intended advice in terms of love, and that it is deemed intellectually (and therefore somehow spiritually) unhelpful to resort too heavily to this tactic, say because it would be to debase the system of doctrine the book represents, I mean both theologically and ethically (the adaptation of ancient Greek virtue thinking, for one, involves transposing a structure that owes its robustness not to scriptural or theological or ecclesiastical supports, but to ways of thinking about actions, ends, everyday character traits, desires, and so on). There's some consideration of economy involved. In Epictetus' Enchiridion, for instance, the level of condensation can make certain principles or core concepts of the Stoic practice take on a hectoring aspect, reappearing with comic regularity as universal solutions your overly attached ass is too blundersome to apply correctly. In the Discourses, this impression subsides somewhat (not a lot).

I've only made some headway in Two Sources so far. I'm acquainted with Bergson's style of argumentation from reading his first two books over the past couple of years. Perhaps, though, I give too much credit to his knack for precisely refusing the conventional terms in which certain problems have been framed. Late in the first chapter, 'Moral Obligation', after distinguishing the pure obligation due to social pressure from the part of morality expressive of a creative emotional state exemplified for us in heroic figures like Socrates or Jesus, after whose models we aspire, Bergson clearly intends to identify universal equality and properly human rights with the latter, but not the former (war attesting—this is Lefebvre's argument—to the reason that the morality of the closed society, owing to social pressure, is incapable of recognizing human rights). Yet Bergson's characteristic reversals, associating intelligence with the mechanical and the superficial, social self and opposing these to emotion and life and the deep, individual self, set him up to walk right into this howler while fending off an objection about his apparent (moral) sentimentalism:

'Suffice it to say that woman is as intelligent as man, but that she is less capable of emotion, and that if there is any faculty or power of the soul which seems to attain less development in woman than in man, it is not intelligence, but sensibility. I mean of course sensibility in the depths, not agitation at the surface.'

'We need hardly say that there are many exceptions. Religious fervour, for example, can attain, in women, to undreamt-of depths. But nature has probably ordained, as a general rule, that woman should concentrate on her child and confine within somewhat narrow bounds the best of her sensibility. In this department she is indeed incomparable; here the emotion is supra-intellectual in that it becomes divination. How many things rise up in the vision of a mother as she gazes in wonder upon her little one? Illusion perhaps! This is not certain. Let us rather say that reality is big with possibilities, and that the mother sees in the child not only what he will become, but also what he would become, if he were not obliged, at every step in his life, to choose and therefore to exclude.' (Two Sources, pp. 44–5)

Lefebvre identifies Durkheim as a tacit interlocutor. I suppose this—the editions I'm reading right now have no editorial apparatus to speak of—has something to do with the capsule analysis he gives of the origins of justice, in which an idea of equality of value of objects in exchange or barter is extended gradually to a form of reciprocity in punishment, whose compatibility with a society having class subordination he is careful to note. This sets him the problem of how a justice 'which implies neither exchange made nor service rendered, being the assertion pure and simple of the inviolability of right and the incommensurability of the person with any value whatever' (p. 71). His answer appeals to 'one or several privileged beings' who break through society's closure, drawing it after them, due to 'having expanded the social ego within themselves' exactly as creative geniuses in the arts transform the public taste through their works:

… it is one thing for an idea to be merely propounded by sages worthy of admiration, it is very different when the idea is broadcast to the ends of the earth in a message overflowing with love, invoking love in return. Indeed there was no question here of clear-cut wisdom, reducible, from beginning to end, into maxims. There was rather a pointing of the way, a suggestion of the means; at most an indication of the goal, which would only be temporary, demanding a constant renewal of effort. Such effort was bound to be, in certain individuals at least, an effort of creation. The method consisted in supposing possible what is actually impossible in a given society, in imagining what would be its effect on the soul of society, and then inducing some such psychic condition by propaganda and example: the effect, once obtained, would retrospectively complete its cause; new feelings, evanescent indeed, would call forth the new legislation seemingly indispensable to their appearance, and which would then serve to consolidate them. The modern idea of justice has progressed in this way by a series of individual creations which have succeeded through multifarious efforts animated by one and the same impulse.' (p. 78)

(I've read that Beauvoir, Mary Daly, and Michèle Le Dœuff take some lesser or greater inspiration from Bergson, which makes me wonder what scope the historical feminist movements provide for contesting the heroic individualism behind this picture precisely where Bergson would evidently have been most blind to the possibility. My youngest acquaintance with feminism always involved the school-lesson type examples of famous names, which the history itself made challenging to assemble.)

As it should happen, opening Anti-Oedipus at random I find Deleuze and Guattari wading into social theory on comparable terms:

'Meyer Fortes makes a passing remark that is joyous and refreshingly sound: "The circulation of women is not the problem. …A woman circulates of herself. She is not at one's disposal, but the juridical rights governing progeniture are determined for the profit of a specific person." We see no reason in fact for accepting the postulate that underlies exchangist notions of society; society is not first of all a milieu for exchange where the essential would be to circulate or to cause to circulate, but rather a socius of inscription where the essential thing is to mark and to be marked. There is circulation only if inscription requires or permits it. The method of the primitive territorial machine is in this sense the collective investment of the organs; for flows are coded only to the extent that organs capable respectively of producing and breaking them are themselves encircled, instituted as partial objects, distributed on the socius and attached to it. A mask is such an institution of organs. Initiation societies compose the pieces of a body, which are at the same time sensory organs, anatomical parts, and joints. Prohibitions (see not, speak not) apply to those who, in a given state or on a given occasion, are deprived of the right to enjoy a collectively invested organ. The mythologies sing of organs–partial objects and their relations with a full body that repels or attracts them: vaginas riveted on the woman's body, an immense penis shared by the men, an independent anus that assigns itself a body without anus. A Gourma story begins: "When the mouth was dead, the other parts of the body were consulted to see which of them would take charge of the burial.…" The unities in question are never found in persons, but rather in series which determine the connections, disjunctions, and conjunctions of organs. That is why fantasies are group fantasies. It is the collective investment of the organs that plugs desire into the socius and assembles social production and desiring–production into a whole on the earth.' (pp. 156–7)

In Foucault's Anti-Oedipus preface, he also calls that handbook for an art of anti-fascist living, equivalently, a handbook for an art of love (what's more, an art of theory, an art of politics). And he identifies its three main 'adversaries' (a term I would not formerly have read with an echo of the devotional manual about it, with its wariness of tempters, of Satan) in appropriate terms: 'the political ascetics, the sad militants, the terrorists of theory, those who would preserve the pure order of politics and political discourse', 'poor technicians of desire… who would subjugate the multiplicity of desire to the twofold law of structure and lack', and fascism, not just historical fascism but 'the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates us and exploits us' (pp. xiv–xv). What these adversaries are adversaries to is the pragmatics of revolutionary change, but a change that Foucault conceives in problematic, experimental form: 'How does one introduce desire into thought, into discourse, into action? How can and must desire deploy its forces within the political domain and grow more intense in the process of overturning the established order?'. Read 'desire' here as an echo of de Sales' spiritual aspirants who ought to make a profession of their desire to be devout: despite the Stoic asceticism absorbed into his guidance, and the technical spiritual and moral knowhow most of the text embodies, toward the end of helping readers subjugate their own more multifarious desires to a rule of discipline, this is an enterprise that fundamentally plays with desire, puts desire's fruits at stake. I think the description of the third adversary is usually read with its emphasis on the internality of fascism, its unwitting absorption into each of a society's persons' structures of feeling and action. But in this other context of spiritual exercise and of arts of living, the caution that stands out to me is: be careful with your love.

28 Mar '24 12:38:01 AM

'The Allure of Idleness in Zola's Rougon-Macquart'

18 Mar '24 04:04:22 PM

A dream of K. For so long, my strongest memory of her, my inner point of access, has been the most mute, most still: me and her, there, quiet. But my dream, one of those works of recall and imagination, real past and unrealized future, attested intensely enough to the quality of place in my memory that its multiplicity seemed to come alive, now not singular and immobile but referring on to other places and their times: at first, her apartments—so many of them—then mine, standing as sites to explore in recollection; then beyond them suddenly distinct memory of many different places we were, had been, had 'dated', turning them into parts of our histories. And now the intimate, bodily quality of my memory seems to mean not just me and her, fixed at some unidentifiable there and whenever, but us then, across that multiple past, our remembered selves living on where life left them.

28 Feb '24 10:32:02 PM

Autechre, AE_LIVE 2022 (Warp)

Afterbirth, In But Not Of (Willowtip)
Agriculture, Agriculture (Flenser)
Anachronism, Meanders (Unorthodox Emanations)
Anti-God Hand, Blight Year (American Dreams)
Autopsy, Ashes, Organs, Blood and Crypts (Peaceville)
Cannibal Corpse, Chaos Horrific (Metal Blade)
Elitist, A Mirage of Grandeur (Indisciplinarian)
Horrendous, Ontological Mysterium (Season of Mist)
Moral Collapse, Divine Prosthetics (Subcontinental)
Nothingness, Supraliminal (Everlasting Spew)
Suffocation, Hymns from the Apocrypha (Nuclear Blast)
Sarmat, Determined to Strike (I, Voidhanger)
Krallice, Porous Resonance Abyss (self-released)
Ulthar, Anthronomicon / Helionomicon (20 Buck Spin)
Wormhole, Almost Human (Season of Mist)

Sama’ Abdulhadi, Fabric Presents (Fabric)
Ada, Connecting the Dots (Kompakt)
Colleen, Le jour et la nuit du réel (Thrill Jockey)
MoMa Ready, Faith in Us / Headlock (HAUS of ALTR)
Packed Rich, Warp Fields (Ilian Tape)
Purelink, Signs (Peak Oil)
Rezzett, Meant Like This (Trilogy Tapes)
Shed, Towards East (Edition Dur / Kultur ManuFaktur Dussmann)
Surgeon, Crash Recoil (Tresor)
Dario Zenker, Reflection (Ilian Tape)

Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, and Shahzad Ismaily, Love in Exile (Verve)
Bex Burch, There Is Only Love and Fear (International Anthem)
EABS Meets Jaubi, In Search of a Better Tomorrow (Astigmatic)
Illegal Crowns, Unclosing (Out of Your Head)
Steve Lehman and Orchestre National de Jazz, Ex Machina (Pi)
Thandi Ntuli with Carlos Niño, Rainbow Revisited (International Anthem)
Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the Garden… (Constellation)
Sissoko Segal Parisien Peirani, Les Égarés (No Format!)
Rajna Swaminathan, Apertures (Ropeadope)
Emilio Teubal, Futuro (Not Yet)

Aesop Rock, Integrated Tech Solutions (Rhymesayers)
DJ Shadow, Action Adventure (Mass Appeal / Liquid Amber)
JPEGMAFIA & Danny Brown, Scaring the Hoes (AWAL)
Luidji, Saison 00 (Foufoune Palace)
Noname, Sundial (self-released)

Janelle Monáe, The Age of Pleasure (Wondaland Arts Society / Atlantic)
Aya Nakamura, DNK (Rec. 118 / Warner Music France)
Niecy Blues, Exit Simulation (Kranky)
Jorja Smith, Flying or Falling (Famm)
Tinashe, BB/ANG3L (Nice Life)

Chepang, Swatta (GCBT)
Day Job, The Auger (Hex)
Filth is Eternal, Find Out (MNRK Heavy)
Geld, Currency // Castration (Relapse)
Thin, Dusk (Twelve Gauge)

Blush, Supercrush (No Sleep)
Frog, Grog (Tape Wormies / Audio Antihero)
Feeble Little Horse, Girl with Fish (Saddle Creek)
Nabiha Iqbal, Dreamer (Ninja Tune)
Lewsberg, Out and About (12XU)
Lifeguard, Crowd Can Talk / Dressed in Trenches (Matador)
Parannoul, After the Magic / After the Night (Poclanos / Topshelf)
Speedy Ortiz, Rabbit Rabbit (Wax Nine)
Marnie Stern, The Comeback Kid (Joyful Noise)
Yo La Tengo, This Stupid World (Matador)

Daniel Bachman, When the Roses Come Again (Three Lobed)
James Elkington, Me Neither (No Quarter)
Horse Lords, Live in Leipzig (RVNG Intl.)
Bill Orcutt, Jump On It (Palilalia)
Sourdurent, l’Herbe De Détourne (Bongo Joe)

Tim Hecker, No Highs (Kranky)
Kali Malone, Does Spring Hide Its Joy (Ideologic Organ)
Moufang & Czemanski, Recreational Kraut (Source)
The Necks, Travel (Northern Spy)
Keith Fullerton Whitman, A Stable Environment (Going In)

Vikingur Ólafsson, Goldberg Variations (Deutsche Grammophon)

Deafheaven, Sunbather (Deathwish)
Bob Dylan, The Complete Budokan 1978 (Columbia / Legacy)
Ricardo Villalobos, Alcachofa (Perlon)

Junior Boys, Waiting Game (City Slang)
Cloud Rat, Threshold (Artoffact)
Ellen Arkbro & Johan Graden, I get along without you very well (Thrill Jockey)
Spoon, Lucifer on the Sofa (Matador)
Bombardement, Le Futur Est Là (Destructure / Symphony of Destruction)
Oneida, Success (Joyful Noise)
Horse Lords, Comradely Objects (Rvng Intl.)
Sam Prekop & John McEntire, Sons Of (Thrill Jockey)
Vladislav Delay, Isoviha (Planet Mu)
ZZ Top, Raw (‘That Little ‘Ol Band from Texas’ Original Soundtrack) (BMG)
Makaya McCraven, In These Times (International Anthem / Nonesuch)
Etran de L’Aïr, Agadez (Sahel Sounds)
Epitaphe, II (Aesthetic Death)
Horsegirl, Versions of Modern Performance (Matador)
Krallice, Psychagogue (self-released)
Undeath, It’s Time… to Rise from the Grave (Prosthetic)
Escuela Grind, Memory Theater (MNRK Heavy)
Horace Andy, Midnight Rocker (On-U Sound)
Tangerine Dream, Raum (Kscope)
Oren Ambarchi / Johan Berthling / Andreas Werliin, Ghosted (Drag City)

Stereolab, Pulse of the Early Brain (Switched On Volume 5)
Guns N’ Roses, Use Your Illusion I and II

Lewsberg, In Your Hands (12XU)
Carcass, Torn Arteries (Nuclear Blast)
Madlib, Sound Ancestors (Madlib Invazion)
Skee Mask, Pool (Ilian Tape)
Shawn Rudiman, Flow State (Pittsburgh Tracks)
Myriam Gendron, Ma Délire (Feeding Tube)
Meek Mill, Expensive Pain (Maybach Music Group / Atlantic)
Summer Walker, Still Over It (LVRN / Interscope)
Vladislav Delay, Rakka II (Cosmo Rhythmatic)
Jawbox, Live at Metro Chicago 2019 (Arctic Rodeo)
Caterina Barbieri, Fantas Variations (Editions Mego)
MoMA Ready, BODY 21 (self-released) / AceMoMA, A Future (Haus of Altr)
Jana Rush, Painful Enlightenment (Planet Mu)
Nice Girl, Ipsum (Public Possession)
Mess Esque, Mess Esque (Milk! Records / Remote Control)
Grouper, Shade (Kranky)
Jeff Parker, Forfolks (International Anthem / Nonesuch)
The Chisel, Retaliation (La Vida Es Un Mus)
Wanderer, Liberation from a Brutalist Existence (Entelodon)
Obsolete, Animate//Isolate (Unspeakable Axe)
Wau Wau Collectif, Yaral Sa Doom (Sahel Sounds)
Pelt, Reticence / Resistance (Three Lobed)
Les Filles de Illighadad, At Pioneer Works (Sahel Sounds)
Benoit Delbecq / Mark Turner / John Hebert / Gerald Cleaver, Gentle Ghosts (Jazzdor Series)
Thou, Hightower (Robotic Empire)

Dinosaur Jr., Live in the Middle East (self-released)
Various Artists, Tresor 30 (Tresor)
Stereolab, Electrically Possessed (Switched On Volume 4) (Warp / Duophonic UHF Disks)
Gang of Four, 77–81: Live at American Indian Center 1980 SFO (Matador)
Sonic Youth, Live in Austin 1995 (self-released)

Dogleg, Melee (Triple Crown)
Autechre, Sign / Plus (Warp)
Hum, Inlet (Earth Analog)
Erik Hall, Music for 18 Musicians (Western Vinyl)
Deerhoof, Love-Lore (Joyful Noise)
Vladislav Delay, Rakka (Cosmo Rhythmatic)
Jeff Parker, Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem / Nonesuch)
Pallbearer, Forgotten Days (Nuclear Blast)
Drain, California Cursed (Revelation)
Haim, Women in Music Pt. III (Columbia)
Wizkid, Made in Lagos (Starboy / Sony Music International / RCA)
Bardo Pond, Adrop / Circuit VIII (Three Lobed)
The Necks, Three (Northern Spy)
Jim White and Marisa Anderson, The Quickening (Thrill Jockey)
Aya Nakamura, Aya (Rec. 118 / Warner France)
Stay Inside, Viewing (No Sleep)
Flo Milli, Ho, why is you here? (’94 Sounds / RCA)
Boneflower, Armour (The Braves)
Nuvolascura, As We Suffer From Memory and Imagination (Zegema Beach / Dog Knights)
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia)
Lous and the Yakuza, Gore (Columbia)
The Strokes, The New Abnormal (RCA)
MoMa Ready, Deep Technik (self-released) / Gallery S, Gallery S (self-released)
Various Artists, Soul Jazz Records Presents Black Riot: Early Jungle, Rave And Hardcore (Soul Jazz)
Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas, III (Smalltown Supersound)
Horse Lords, The Common Task (Northern Spy)
Theo Parrish, Wuddaji (Sound Signature)
Róisín Murphy, Róisín Machine (Skint / BMG)
Joey Nightcore’s 8-Bit Adventures, Emperor Tomato Ketchup (8-Bit) (Dracula’s Necrophobic Actions)
Carlota, The Bow (Trip)
Krallice, Mass Cathexis (self-released)
Caetano Veloso & Ivan Sacerdote, Caetano Veloso & Ivan Sacerdote (Universal Music)
Moodymann, Taken Away (KDJ)
Aksak Maboul, Figures (Crammed Discs)
Thou, A Primer of Holy Words (self-released)
Ariana Grande, Positions (Republic)
Container, Scramblers (Alter)
Darkstar, Civic Jams (Warp)
Gerald Cleaver, Signs (577 Records)
Burna Boy, Twice as Tall (Atlantic)

Cloud Rat, Pollinator (Artoffact Records)
Steve Lehman Trio & Craig Taborn, The People I Love (Pi Recordings)
Otoboke Beaver, Iketoma Hits (Damnably Records)
Car Bomb, Mordial (self-released)
Petrol Girls, Cut & Stitch (Hassle Records)
Kali Malone, The Sacrificial Code (iDEAL Recordings)
Floating Points, Crush (Ninja Tune)
Prins Thomas, Ambitions (Smalltown Supersound)
Summer Walker, Over It (LoveRenaissance/Interscope)
Burna Boy, African Giant (Spaceship Entertainment/Bad Habit/Atlantic/Warner Music International)

Floating Points, Crush (Ninja Tune)
Special Request, Vortex (Houndstooth)
Stenny, Upsurge (Ilian Tape)
Madteo, Dropped Out Sunshine (DDS)
Shed, Oderbruch (Ostgut Ton)
Karenn, Grapefruit Regret (Voam)
Octo Octa, Resonant Body (T4T LUV NRG)
E-Sagglia, My World My Way (Northern Electronics)
Earthen Sea, Grass and Trees (Kranky)
HVL, Rhythmic Sonatas (Bassiani)
ERP, Afterimage (Forgotten Future US)
Andre Bratten, Pax Americana (Smalltown Supersound)
Efdemin, New Atlantis (Ostgut Ton)
Moodymann, Sinner (KDJ)
Function, Existenz (Tresor Records)
Nathan Micay, Blue Spring (LuckyMe)
PTU, Am I Who I Am (трип)
Shanti Celeste, Tangerine (Peach Discs)
J Majik, Full Circle (Infrared)
Basic Rhythm, On the Threshold (Planet Mu)
Christoph de Babalon, Hectic Shakes (Alter)
Acronym & Kali Malone, The Torrid Eye (Stilla Ton)
Kornél Kovács, Stockholm Marathon (Studio Barnhus)
Barker, Utility (Ostgut Ton)
Lowtec, Light Surfing (Avenue 66)

Cloud Rat, Pollinator (Artoffact Records)
Car Bomb, Mordial (self-released)
Noisem, Cease to Exist (20 Buck Spin)
Oozing Wound, High Anxiety (Thrill Jockey)
Coffins, Beyond the Circular Demise (Relapse Records)
Blood Incantation, Hidden History of the Human Race (Dark Descent Records)
Magic Circle, Departed Souls (20 Buck Spin)
False, Portent (Gilead Media)
Dödläge, Hostile Regression (Phobia Records)
Candlemass, The Door to Doom (Napalm)

Junius Paul, Ism (International Anthem)
Steve Lehman Trio & Craig Taborn, The People I Love (Pi Recordings)
Anna Webber, Clockwise (Pi Recordings)
Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan, Epistrophy (ECM)
Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis (Constellation)
Ahmad Jamal, Ballades (Jazz Village)
Camila Meza & The Nectar Orchestra, Ámbar (Sony Masterworks)
Izumi Kimura, Barry Guy, & Gerry Hemmingway, Illuminated Silence (Fundacja Sluchaj)
Pat Thomas, Dominic Lash, & Tony Orrell, BleySchool (577 Records)
Detail (Frode Gjerstad, John Stevens, and Johnny Mbizo Dyani), Day Two (NoBusiness Records)
Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity, To Whom Who Buys a Record (Odin)
Brad Barrett, Joe Morris, & Tyshawn Sorey, Cowboy Transfiguration (Fundacja Sluchaj)
Alexi Tuomarila Trio, Sphere (Edition Records)
Dave Douglas, Uri Caine, & Andrew Cyrille, Devotion (Greenleaf Music)
Mark Lockheart, Days on Earth (Edition Records)
Melissa Aldana, Visions (Motéma Music)
Nérija, Blume (Domino Recording Company)
Aki Takase, Hokusai – Piano Solo (Intakt Records)
James Brandon Lewis, An Unruly Manifesto (Relative Pitch Records)
Kyoko Kitamura’s Tidepool Fauna, Protean Labyrinth (self-released) ***

Summer Walker, Over It (LVRN / Interscope)
Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell (Polydor / Interscope)
Burna Boy, African Giant (Atlantic)
iLe, Almadura (Sony Music)
Kehlani, While We Wait (Atlantic)
Bill Orcutt, Odds Against Tomorrow (Palilalia)
Erika de Casier, Essentials (4AD)
Ari Lennox, Shea Butter Baby (Dreamville / Interscope)
Alasdair Roberts, The Fiery Margin (Drag City)
Telefon Tel Aviv, Dreams Are Not Enough (Ghostly International)

Prins Thomas, Ambitions (Smalltown Supersound)
Keith Fullerton Whitman, Late Playthroughs (self-released)
Brighde Chaimbeul, The Reeling (River Lea)
Sunwatchers, Illegal Moves (Trouble in Mind)
Sarah Louise, Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars (Thrill Jockey)

Kali Malone, The Sacrificial Code (iDEAL Recordings)
Michael Pisaro, Nature Denatured and Found Again (Gravity Wave)
Kim Kashkashian, J.S. Bach: Six Suites for Viola Solo BWV 1007–101 (ECM)
Eva-Maria Houben, Erwartung 1 und 2 (Second Editions)
Oren Ambarchi, Simian Angel (Editions Mego)
John McCowen, Mundanas I–V (Edition Wandelweiser Records)

Stereolab, Dots and Loops (Warp / Duophonic UHF Disks)
Stereolab, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (Warp / Duophonic UHF Disks)
Stereolab, Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Warp / Duophonic UHF Disks)
Stereolab, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (Warp / Duophonic UHF Disks)
Autechre, Warp Tapes 89–93 (self-released)

• • •


I started 2019 enjoying myself, really enjoying myself, thanks predominantly to the older jazz and techno I was exploring. My fascination with it moved me to write freely about music, and made me feel like I was really listening, for the first time in a long while. I was on the move a lot, or what passes for moving for me, and what pleased me most was the fortuitousness of the rhythms of listening, the way a handful of records can fill your day and send you from one day to the next, reverberating with remembered impressions and sharpened attention for what’s new. Records in the morning, records on the bus, records after class. I remember when I was reading Against the Day in 2006, being stunned by so apt a phrase for some inner apprehension a character had, that I carried it around with me for days, not writing it down, looking sidelong at it, thrilling at my own capacity to respond to just a handful of words, and above all at the privacy of the response, like a secret or a private joke: look at that, how fantastic. I never wrote it down, I forgot what it was. Maybe I’ll come across it again someday. But listening at the start of 2019 was a bit like that, senses awakened, thoughts active, on the lookout for anything and everything.

I suppose that’s reflected in the expansiveness of my lists for 2019, which is where this post began. I forget when I started using categories like that in my year-end lists, even when I never settled on final versions of them, but it’s no accident that I reach for them when I start feeling like I’ve heard a lot of music. The categories help me form more definite attachments to records, partly because I focus more on the contrasts between records in the same category. But they also help me later, when the fact that I said that five or ten records went together preserves some trace of what they sounded like, what they meant. That’s true even when I get antsy and delete files, or when the natural roving of my attention leads me to let even records I heard five or ten times slip into indifference.

I’ve never been happy making lists like these, and only the formal critics’ polls that I started skulking around the outskirts of twenty years ago ever really gave me a strong incentive to commit to lists. Without that, I have a hard time sanctioning my feelings toward the records I hear in any given year. Sometimes, while I can identify ten or twenty records that I think were good and that I listened to a lot, I don’t so much feel compelled by them, thrilled by them, or by the prospect of proclaiming them. Other years, a record that I play over and over, a record absorbed into the structure of my everyday life that textures my subsequent memories, becomes so much more important than a year-end-list entry (like, say, Dogleg in 2020) that it seems a little unfair to the other records, the ordinary good ones, to have to compete with it for spots in this sort of personal chronicle.

Still I’ve kept making lists, and sharing them with friends or posting them on social media, even when I wasn’t as involved in the year-end critical ritual. One thing that was eventually apparent enough about my process is that it doesn’t so much codify the judgments I make for others as it documents me, for myself. I see this especially in the way that my attention stays shaped by loyalty to artists I’ve already known a while. I suppose that makes me like the Pazz & Jop critics of decades past who could never be too generous to, for example, mid-career Dylan albums that in some objective sense seemed out of place when put next to the music of the moment. Sometimes it becomes a sign of hope, sometimes a sign of tolerance for disappointment, sometimes a marker for listening still to come. For instance, I don’t as much like the most recent Krallice albums, but the early run of releases I discovered with Diotima was important enough to me for a decade’s worth of listening that they acquire a relative privilege over other records I might hear in the same year. I’ll keep wanting to pay attention to what they do for a long while. Similarly, the fallibility of my lists is sometimes that they express aspirations more than convictions, most so in the lower rungs. I always wish to hear everything, more, forever, until I’m sure; I imagine someone who was sure could enumerate with authority. I hold out for as much conviction as I can find until it seems like the list must be done. The aspirational entries acknowledge the truth, which is that I’ll be catching up privately for however long that takes.

I also fell away from the ritual of list-making because it just takes me so long to settle sometimes that I can’t keep up, even granted all these qualifications. Usually that’s just natural (you can see that reflected in my 2016 list, which I never really got anywhere with until the records I went on to hear months or years after that year was over ended up making more of an impression on me than much of what I heard during the calendar year—so I made that list by adding some records, marked with asterisks, very belatedly). But it’s sometimes exceptional; I started writing the present entry for this blog’s 20-year anniversary in 2019, and I let it get away from me until the pandemic.

I didn’t hear as much music in 2020, especially because I happened not to actively seek out records in quantity (it takes work to hear a lot). All the same, I was lucky enough to find records I could love, lots of them. The top half of my list is full of things that made an impression even despite the exceptional pressures on everyday life. Much the same is true of 2021, when I probably listened more to ‘Simple Headphone Mind’ (from the latest installment in Stereolab’s rarities/EPs compilation) than to any of the new records of that year. And more than anything else, what brought 2022 around for me was a number of records by old favorites (like the Junior Boys album) that transformed my sense of the year, gave it stronger strands of continuity with the past.

Dogleg, Melee (Triple Crown)
During the pandemic I acquired a new phone that had a digital radio tuner built in, and when for a time I was still feeling sick and taking walks at night, something about the confinement and the isolation led me to play the radio rather than my own music on my walks (I hardly ever listen to the radio otherwise). Weirdly so, since what I most liked to listen to was the local college station, which wasn’t even staffed at the time. The DJs were off campus like everyone else, so the station broadcast robo-playlists cut in with prerecorded station IDs. I think a few of them might have been recorded over the phone, but some were probably not even current. It was more like the imagination of radio, virtual radio, than the actual thing. Even still, the thrill of one night hearing Dogleg ‘on the radio’ made everything seem more connected, more real. The album had been released almost simultaneously with my getting sick, right at the start of the pandemic, and I endured an extra long quarantine period in uncertainty over when my symptoms would ever subside and what they meant, much of it rasping and wheezing and trying whatever breathing exercises the geniuses on various hospital websites could come up with, whole-body sick yet alert enough to desperately need something to occupy my mind (that’s when I started learning French, for example). So every morning, nowhere to go and nothing to do and needing to do it not in bed, it came to be Melee that marked the beginning of the day. It’s a short, catchy, driving record, loud guitars and careening tempos, only 36 minutes, so it lent itself all the more to repetition; I played it several times some days, nearly 200 times total, probably most of them in that first year of knowing it. I don’t have a lot of use for new rock music anymore, and Dogleg tends enough toward emo that they wouldn’t normally elicit strong sentiments from me, being the sort of thing I like to check in on now and then, but really music for a younger age, where everything demands to be yelled so it can surge forth the way that so many youthful feelings overtake you. But it took on the character of a private ritual, or semi-private, depending on how loud it was—until that night I heard them ‘on the radio’.

Hum, Inlet (Earth Analog)
Hum, Downward is Heavenward (RCA)
Hum, ‘Stars’ , from You’d Prefer an Astronaut(RCA)
And the same year, of all the things I never thought to expect, a new album from Hum more than twenty years after they disbanded was among the least expected. Reunion albums from rock bands are disappointing, in my experience. I have trouble even understanding what some listeners with otherwise good judgment can hear in them, I guess you could say, how they can hear them for what they are, assess their merits. They always seem lesser to me, as if condemned to it—it doesn’t matter how beloved the band. For instance Soundgarden’s reunion album, which I’d just as well let be. It can’t just be that bands who disband come apart in other ways, as actors who return to roles can find that they don’t quite remember how to play them right anymore, losing their feel for a character. Perhaps I always import some story, however abstract, into my understanding of what I hear; when there’s a break in the story, when a band themselves have no longer continuously lived out the time in which they’ve made their records, maybe they lose touch with something that animated the records that defined their music. (Of course, musicians like to shrug that kind of definition off, always becoming something else, while fans always love them as they unchangingly were.) Anyway, Hum were safely housed in my most precious memories, since I experienced the nineties firsthand as a teenager and was hit with such force by their one-hit-wonder radio single ‘Stars’ that I bought their albums and followed them as far as I thought they went. They had an earlier album that in my indie rock years I learned to associate with the UIUC scene that put them in proximity to or rivalry with the more successful Smashing Pumpkins in Chicago, whose sound was not dissimilar to theirs. And in this period I had an office job that had me, for some summers, commuting to and working in downtown Des Moines, in a few different locations, one of which had me taking my lunches in the skyway system that was dangerously convenient to a record store I would visit on my lunch breaks, where I bought their commercially disappointing followup, the shoegazey-er Downward is Heavenward. Radio didn’t like it but everything about my life at the time made their music lodge somewhere important in my heart. I thought of them as, in a way, nerd-rock, and not just for the intangible affinity of their sound for that of Rush. They had songs about astronauts, space, benzene rings, pods—not novelty shit but just the sort of things you’d get if scientifically literate people took it upon themselves to use the matter of science as images, naively, to express themselves. I was a mathematician at the time, I had a biologist girlfriend, I liked heavy guitars and staring abstractedly off into the distance. I felt like this was mine. Which meant that, as the group disbanded at the turn of the millennium and the world and I moved on, listening to their records made me something like a votary of my younger self. ‘People might remember ‘Stars’ warmly, but they could never remember it the way I remembered it’, that kind of thing. Until Inlet came out of nowhere, that is, and I was touched to hear so much testimony of the deep and abiding love so many others had for the band. The album spared me disappointment, I think, by not really being a reunion album. Compare it to, say, the third album that My Bloody Valentine fans were waiting for for about as long (though with more protracted promise of its imminent arrival). I like them but I’ve never had the enthusiasm for them that some have; all the same, when I heard m b v and wouldn’t have thought I was all that attached to it somehow ‘being the same’ (as Loveless, basically), I couldn’t help but think: this is not the same. Inlet isn’t, either, but I had not spent decades with an intense fixation on Hum’s earlier records the way the world had with MBV’s. Or, I should say, the public had not, since it didn’t care either way, which freed me up to have my private, imperceptibly changing relationship to the records, to have it change as I changed, unbothered by what I thought the world thought. I suppose what I heard when I first played Inlet was a band that had changed as I had changed, so that somehow we had the fortune to meet in the same place.

Stereolab, Pulse of the Early Brain (Switched On Volume 5) (Duophonic, Warp)
Stereolab, Electrically Possessed (Switched On Volume 4) (Duophonic, Warp)
Stereolab, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (Duophonic)
Stereolab, Dots and Loops (Duophonic)
Stereolab, Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Duophonic)
Stereolab, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (Duophonic)
One of the rhythms I like most is one least at my disposal, which I suppose has always made me slightly self-conscious about the possibility of finding it again, falling into it. I mean that everyday rhythm, the one that comes of repetitions spread over weeks or months that start to fall naturally, but fortuitously, into synchronization with the locally orienting events and moments of life. Repeated sounds, sights, and feelings coalesce to form moods that mutually reinforce the moments and lend them meaning on the least conspicuous levels. Back whenever I first started writing this, I found myself leaving a coffeeshop, putting on the last track, my favorite, on an old Stereolab album reissued that year, so that it would play first but loop back to the beginning for my walk home—as I had many nights already, and days. ’Come and Play…’ does have that archetypal last-track charm to it, the one that feels like an ending but leaves you wanting more despite ending artfully enough, I mean so as to end, to let you leave off there if you wanted, feeling no less sated. But it also has a loping snare beat and a gently oscillating rising-and-falling contour that make the speed of walking recall the comfortable subway car jostle of a Velvets song or a cruise on the highway, so you move you move you move, cheered at the prospect of being on your way. This time, as I moved I couldn’t help but think of a book I must have been reading in about the same era of my life twenty years ago when I was first listening to lots of Stereolab, Cortazar’s Hopscotch—one I never really read properly, and I don’t even mean if you can (the choose-your-own-adventure format, etc.), I mean I just couldn’t get on the right track with it. I did spend a lot of time thinking about it and reading about it back then, though, and I’m sure one thing that preoccupied me was the recurring scenes, or just the sense of recurrence, because who knows, of those Parisians and Argentinians sitting around drinking yerba mate, listening to records over and over. That’s life, I’m sure I thought. Not the activity, nor the idleness, ha, but that as a source of that texture of ordinariness, the everyday rhythm that folds into everything else that occurs, weaves everything else into it, actual, anticipated, and remembered. I suppose Stereolab’s arch, emotionally cool, stylish songs have always encouraged that for me: E., a sometime musician who spoke French and always claimed what was her own with an ardor, an intensity, sang Stereolab songs like they were proper songs, the kind that mean something, say something; but with their singsong ba-bas and bilingual evasiveness I have always ascribed even less verbal meaning to them than I am usually able to patch together in the music I am, all the same, privately attached to. That’s not to say I felt outside Stereolab songs, though no doubt there’s something considerable I’m missing in the lyrics (even with a little newly acquired French, they are elusive). It’s more that they deliberately use distance to sustain their playful, sometimes teasing character, to keep moving. (A whole rhetorical mode they affect to save themselves from needing to speak truly rhetorically, i.e., with the directness, the immediacy, of action.) More so than so many other, lesser bands, Stereolab have always seemed pleased to appear to keep no secret about how their music works, which is maybe why many fans automatically pick a long track like ’Jenny Ondioline’ as the apotheosis of the band (groop): an eighteen-minute piece reduced (so you remember) to such basics to sustain its running time as guitars tremolo picked or strummed in agitated eighth notes, cooing, chanting, and a motorik beat—that could not seem to more candid about how little it takes to get you going. I suppose when I was twenty the offputting aspect of the monotonous, that ancestral affinity of theirs with the avant-garde, was a source of mildly perverse pleasure, the kind one generally ages out of (as one learns how superficial, how transitory, it is to freak out a square, or to be a square so freaked). You forget, though, how busy and tricky ‘Ondioline’ is in its construction, how it mobilizes a whole architectonic, a grand symphonic rhetoric, with entrances and shifts upward and downward in gear and returns and finally even an exit, throwing every device at their disposal at you, as if to make the monolith stand in your memory. Or at least I often did forget, having mostly set Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements aside until the groop’s reissue campaign. For years, though, I never stopped listening to Dots and Loops, for me a nearly perfect album, which I’ve always been inclined to remember as a monolithic block of experience in its own right, a whole. Perception of it as their most pop(pish) album seems to have to do with their relative abandonment of a certain rhetorical austerity to their music, or of the ancestors even, on account of which it comes across like an embrace of sounds that, perhaps because coding as more contemporary to certain ears, seem to say more, speak to the now (even if, yes, in a retro mode). I only came to realize after a long time that for me it was perhaps that I couldn’t hear a band, didn’t hear all the music I was hearing as if it were being made moment-to-moment by the actions of musicians, that was really doing it for me, putting the record in a space where sonic events are produced rather than played, making it more of a peer of its contemporaries than anything else in their catalogue. (An impression connected with the feeling of total ease, of moment passing into moment free of the scrape and pull of merely human coordination.) The sound on the remaster has tipped ever so slightly away from that, maybe, sounding more bandlike now, but it’s full and welcome all the same, and as I’ve been paying closer attention to the other reissued albums around it, my impression has been gently subsiding the more I listen for affinities with the playing and composition and production on the other records. My memory for ’Refractions in the Plastic Pulse’, that album’s longest number, is thoroughly inaccurate, I’ve found, I think a side effect of its capaciousness and of all the quiet seams and fuses of disparate parts and the sequencing and composition of the album’s last two tracks (which revisit the Mouse on Mars production additions), which make me lose track of what’s where. But sometimes it’s nice not to know where you are and just go on from wherever it is.

Autechre, AE_LIVE 2022 (Warp)
Autechre, Sign (Warp)
Autechre, Plus (Warp)
Autechre, NTS Sessions 1–4 (Warp)
Autechre, elseq 1–5 (Warp)
Autechre, Exai (Warp)
Autechre, Move of Ten (Warp)
Autechre, Oversteps (Warp)
This year, Autechre, aka Rob Brown and Sean Booth, released nearly eight hours of live recordings from their 2022 tour, another installment in the oceanic output of their past decade or so; several years earlier, there were eight hours documenting their monthlong NTS Radio residency, and before that, the four hours of the elseq series. I’ve wanted more and more the whole time to write about what all their music has come to mean to me, but this year in particular was the gift that made it feel overdue.

My curiosity this year was rewarded by what it seems is a more curated release, possible to encompass, easier to familiarize yourself with. During the past decade, the duo also released another thirty-five live sets documenting three earlier tours. I’ve only ever sampled those. They can be abrasive and uninviting on first approach, and obviously, they’re too much. In contrast, the seven shows of AE_LIVE 2022 quickly manifest a loose pattern, something you can follow. Each show, a more exploratory commencement, similar each time, becomes more and more involved before peaking much later in the show. The movement between is familiar yet unfamiliar, with recognizable zones of sound recurring in unpredictable places across shows. For a long time the duo has generated their music, both on record and live, with a rat’s-nest rig of hardware and software they call ‘the system’. Close observers know that one effect of the system is the surprising audible affinities that can sometimes be found (and that the duo sometimes marks with track names) between otherwise distinct pieces of music. This is not at all unprecedented, for them or for electronic music—as far back as Quaristice and associated releases they were employing their appropriation of dub ‘versioning’ in order to multiply records deriving ever more obscurely from sources—but in more recent output the system gives the duo such command over their music’s elements that at every moment everything you hear, everything, seems to break down something old and constitute something new from it.

The 2022 sets came in the wake of the pair of 2020 albums that were received as something of a return to restraint, owing to their (conventional) brevity and especially to the spare, classical sound of the first of them, Sign. Though Plus is audibly a companion to its predecessor, it clouds the singularity of Sign somewhat by reverting to the duo’s customary pattern of producing and sequencing a release for maximal variety, like a beatmaker does (recalling always the hip-hop/electro roots they tout, and honor). What’s striking about Sign is its sense of sustained mood, of somehow working amid and working out just one thing. (It’s one thing, fragile, but a thing with duration, dynamic, a multiplicity of textures. Perhaps I hear it this way because I listen on repeat, always patient for the exquisite opener ‘M4 Lema’ to come back around, so that the ten subsequent tracks feel like that beginning held in abeyance.)

One of the many remarkable things about the 2022 sets is the way they achieve a kindred effect, at scale. Rhythmically, though, they’re much more energetic than the Sign sound, which borders on sedate, yet that energy never becomes heavy, the rhythms rarely stalling or degenerating into the plods or awkward slogs the group sometimes have liked to explore. On the whole the motion is fleet, the rhythm light. Every set starts going and then keeps going, goes somewhere. And in each show a passage, or a family of passages, recurs that is honestly one of the most remarkable things I have ever heard. The featured sounds are themselves indescribable; the best I can do is suggest that the tones resemble a kind of sculpted chirping, but in many instances quite massive, using the whole scale, or several staves, as if the earth itself were percolating. Even the lowest tones, which verge on beats, though everything shares in a percussive effect, are brief and light-footed, but the similar involvement of tones higher and higher up the scale contributes to something like a choral effect, as if a song were about to emerge from a totality of sounds.

And in each show it’s different, yet the passage occurs in a predictable way at a meaningful point. It’s about fifty-four minutes into the Milan and Helsinki shows, and similarly in the Athens show, which runs ten minutes longer. There were two shows on the same day in London. In the A show, the passage occurs about forty-five minutes in, with the high end of the scale noticeably filtered out. The B show is the most singular of the set, presumably because Brown and Booth wanted not to follow their general pattern for what would probably be a repeat performance for many in the audience. In the B show, a scratching effect starts at about forty minutes. In the Bergen show, the passage starts earlier than usual, at about forty-three minutes, but by about the fifty-five minute mark it seems to be extended in a continuation that is masked somewhat like the London A show, but now with anything fast suppressed, so that what does get through is elongated, smeared, fatter. The passage forty-three minutes into the Turin show works somewhat similarly, but that version seems to feature the continuous shaping of a middle voice that somehow pulls at the percolations like taffy.

Of these memorable moments, the one from the London B show is the most memorable, an interval of music unlike anything Autechre has ever made. At first vocal samples, turntable scratching, the sound of a beat amid deconstruction are audible—an acknowledgement of their hip-hop inheritance. I’ve read online that it was all a product of the system, no turntable to scratch. But that’s what those sounds mean, so that’s what you hear. As the passage starts and stops, gains coherence and lets it lapse, it eventually finds a groove, goosed by squirmy farty synth tones. Then, a sequence of high tones that ring out like bells, uneasily situated sonically somewhere between calls to attention and calls of alarm, not quite intentionally, but as if the sound just does what it does and there remains something dangerous in it. As time passes the chime motif slots the music into a repeating two-bar descent punctuated by a unison re-attack at the start. The next several minutes assume an almost symphonic aspect as the system-synthesized turntable works everything up into a rolling mass. The sound is ceremonial, ritual, sacred.

I say ‘most memorable’, because the others seem to belong to a different order of experience. I would like to remember them. I feel some affinity for them, feel a way to stay in touch with them when they aren’t playing. But they’re so unlike anything that I really want to hear them playing, need to hear them playing so that their recreation is not left to my inferior power over sound. Something new was created, and I just want to listen to it. In the Helsinki show, now, what I notice is the saturation of the change that is ongoing, the way that so many different components of the sound are in motion and stay in motion in their own ways. Music is a delight but it is predictable; it depends on being predictable in order to delight. Rarely, music can seem to leave predictability behind, even if you know it hardly does, hardly could. In this family of late passages, though, the delight is in predictability being suspended, canceled: it’s replaced by a second-to-second flux of sound that moves, stays moving.

Though they didn’t make it onto my lists that year, ever since Oversteps and its companion Move of Ten were released in 2010, I had taken back up with Autechre’s music more than I ever had since Confield a decade earlier (whether put off them by that notoriously offputting record, or the unaccountable drift of life, I can’t say), and I was still getting better acquainted with the intervening records. But it wasn’t until the elseq EPs 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 (typically for Autechre, LP-length affairs) in 2016 that all of their music assumed a permanent fascination for me, and my listening could become rapt, sometimes even take on an almost spiritual fervor, like the best listening.

At first, and for a long time, I experienced the opener ‘feed1’ as an annihilating blast, eleven and a half minutes of arhythmic juddering subsumed in a barrage of static. I don’t know when I began to hear the delicacy of the voices that could be found amid that noise—I say ‘voices’ as a technical convenience, they are all noises—or of the lyrical arc that seemed to shape itself out of nothing but distortion. Now my experience of the track is of something over too soon, as if I’d had the sense that its lines could have been extended much further but for some external choice to end it there. Autechre had worked at length before this—see some material versioned out of the Quaristice album—but generally seem to have hit a comfortable limit at around half an LP side, which I gather is due to the song-sized starting point they might long have had in mind. On elseq more than elsewhere their tracks can seem to possess a logic, from who knows where, internal or external, and perhaps that has something to do with the explosion in track lengths, as if it were now possible for something else to determine when, once started, they should end. I referred earlier to their ‘process music’, something that often seems evident from the ways their tracks change, gradually, moment to moment. That’s no less true on elseq, but there’s something else at play here, sometimes a sense that once provided with its materials and its logic, once the process is begun, the duo simply lets it play out, as if to see what happens.

Which, of course, implies, contrary to the idea of ‘a logic’, that they don’t know and are going to find out, as if they and we will find out together. That again diminishes the sense of design, though I feel it to be stronger on this release than in the NTS sessions. Here the patterning in series is more important, each entry despite its length being ‘EP-sized’ in accommodating only a small number of tracks, five, three, three, five, and five again.

If ‘feed1’ is something of a miniature monument, the opening of elseq 2 is the first full-fledged one of the set, the twenty-seven minutes of ‘elyc6 0nset’. It owes its length, again, to not knowing where it will or must end up, to its unforeseeability, which is funny because it reveals, early enough in (around four minutes), that it will essentially be a process of decay. Yet once the first voices (‘voices’, again) have dropped out, the ones that remain eventually reveal themselves to bear more than enough interest to sustain the track on their own. The track retains enough of its elements to still recall the bouncy, jaunty vivacity with which it set out, so the feeling of loss is offset somewhat, but by the halfway point (if you’re not watching the clock) there just doesn’t seem to be anywhere left to go. But even decay decays, and half of twenty-seven minutes is still a long time to listen.

At elseq’s center are its other greatest monuments, bookending the six minutes’ dead-air stomp of ‘TBM2’ that seems meant as a respite, a breather. The first, ‘eastre’, is formed around a simple alternation of two dissonant chords, ebbing and subsiding again and again, voiced to sound like something on the order of the higher end of a cello’s range. I can’t say how I might have described the track’s other elements years back, but since Sign I’ve learned to hear them as ancestors of ‘M4 Lema’. As ‘eastre’ drones on it’s augmented by a variety of sounds that are perceptibly slow, their manner of production declaring some distant kinship with breakbeats and the techniques contemporary with them for sampling, yet still with a texture and a tone akin to that of the ebbing and subsiding figure, so that as the augmentations accrue the track seems to take on a depth, as if some under-surface is constantly under revelation. It’s not uncommon, when listening to recorded sound playing back at an unfamiliarly slow speed, to catch notice of all kinds of little details one had presumably only really felt the presence of before, however much the majority of the sounds simply sound obviously drawn out. Here it’s as if Autechre’s production technique is instead gesturing at an experience of sound, of music, below an ordinary threshold, not just beyond noticing but beyond unaided perception, where one might think only to find unmusical accidents and meaningless artifacts.

The other monument, ‘mesh cinereaL’, is the more radical of the two, though its basic pattern appears to fuse the two aspects of ‘eastre’ into what one would call a single inseparable whole, did it not seem to be a coherence continually at risk of falling in on itself. Again, there is a breakbeat somewhere in its ancestry, but here it is as if the rhythm of a breakbeat not itself heard provides the template for a mask for the slowly pulsing mass of sample-matter or synth-module output, the masking of which brings an inner rhythmic involutedness out from an unheard center, a source. The track’s movement, which occupies nearly twenty-five minutes, is impossibly gluey, digging in on the bass end around eight and a half minutes in to become a kind of nunc stans funk. Two thirds through, ‘mesh cinereaL’ has a false ending that comes on about as precipitously as the real end of ‘eastre’, but its recommencement turns out to be a transformation, with all the preceding elements still lingering somewhere within range but as if at a distance, as if having cleared a space for a number of busy new voices that now crowd the remainder of the track on their own terms.

One of the great pleasures of this music, of decades of Autechre’s music now, is not quite its unknowability, but its capacity for not yet being known. In this it truly repays listening: you can trust that you will be surprised, something will be happening, you can always pay more attention and find the world transformed. There are still two EPs’ worth to go in elseq. On the surface they seem more conventional in sound design, their scales more graspable, their methods more akin to the hip-hop beatmaking and techno track-construction that are Autechre’s roots. I gather that they function as demonstrations, incorporations of the advances in technique and the fruits of experimentation, showing their compatibility with full-dress arrangement, orchestration if you will, and their capacity to extend Autechre’s always under-credited emotional power into unexplored regions. The briefest of intervals arbitrarily selected from ‘foldfree casual’ or ‘latentcall’ are likely to contain fragments of music more remarkable than entire records by other artists. That they occur end to end, in fully conceived tracks laid down in Autechre’s established—if continually evolving—idioms, makes the wholes something like hiding places, places where this dust of technique or technology, finest-grained byproduct of the system, can hide in plain sight, there to be heard once you’re there to listen.

It’s the low end that attracts me most at the end of the record, the twitchy slams that come to dominate the long gradual flowering of ‘foldfree casual’ or the irregular footwork kicks that see ‘latentcall’ out. Autechre are avowed classicists, and the end of elseq seems to me established most in the penultimate track (the final reserved for the formal comedown of ‘oneum’), ‘freulaeux’, whose eleven-minute span is provided an epic shape from its first moments by its ample soundstage, seemingly filled by a billowing, distant echo, and its driving, low-end kicks. The track is filled with activity very much akin to a number of other Autechre album closers, captivating on its own, but I find myself drawn most to the hi-hat, or what would be a hi-hat, if it weren’t something else: lighter, finer, more obscure, like a shaker, not metallic but something like the faint noise of insects in the distance, if they coordinated amongst themselves to fabricate this component of the track’s beat, perhaps swinging between trap rolls and triplets, who can say. It enters before anything else, it runs throughout, or not throughout, but a little over halfway, at which point it drops away. Though many of the more obvious elements continue for the most part as they were, the absence marks a change in the quality of time, something that the hi-hat or hi-hat substitute had indicated, or been doing, some touch of incipience called for up to the point where the eventual end was on the horizon.

Even with all that, 2013’s Exai was still kind of disagreeable to me, until recently, when I finally played it hundreds of times over. So it took a decade of intermittent listening before it opened up for me. Imagine: a decade!