By Jon Hersh
A few weeks ago I was in Boston, and seeing as Boston is the birthplace of angst, I found myself attending a punk rock swap meet, re-living an alternate youth spent externalizing my angst as opposed to the more emo route I took of just bitching about it to whomever would listen. In-between the piles of patches for bands I mostly recognized, and tapes for bands I didn’t, there were crates of surprisingly pristine records lying amidst the crust punk filth. I poured through these looking for whatever gems I could find and eventually struck gold: first editions of Brian Eno’s “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” and “Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror” (the latter with Harold Budd).
I had never before held these in my hands, and they looked pretty much like larger versions of the CDs I had come across at one point or another. But one thing stuck out to me: at the bottom, each record had a half a centimeter slice taken out of it, or “cut-out”, indicating the album had been remaindered and reported to the record label as unsold. “Music for Airports” was released in 1978 and was the first album to coin the term ambient. Although critics split hairs with this point, it might as well be the first entry in that genre. Elsewhere in the pop-world, the biggest selling single of 1978 was “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. And just to make this parallel absolutely clear, let me state it explicitly: in 1978 Brian Eno created an entirely different genre of music, and nothing about that could keep his album from eventually making its way into the bargain bin.
At this point this essay could splinter into a million discussions on high versus low art, on the endurance of music made for fans versus critics, on the effect immediate aural gratification has had on the creation of music. I’m going to open none of those boxes. I’m going to admit the comparison is completely unfair and suggest that the emotional intent of the two genres is so far removed, we could only expect the commercial outcome to be different.
The comparison is all the more ridiculous in that the average pop song clocks in at three minutes and change, and ambient tracks often unfold over ten minutes at minimum. Ambient tracks are much less dynamic, and their ebb and flows don’t target the same emotions that a traditional pop song would. The emotional intent of your typical pop song is a sniper’s aim to our brain’s receptors for excitement and revelry; ambient music is slow moving fog in the worst Bay Area summer, quietly encapsulating our head and hearts. The payoff for ambient can be just as devastating, but requires commitment and directed attention, something we’re not entirely comfortable with. It’s a language and pace more suited to a simpler, almost primitivistic time. Whereas pop music represents the foremost technology to get our blood moving, ambient music represents music at its primordial nucleus.
Perhaps this is why ambient records take so much time to be absorbed and appreciated, and why nearly four decades later after stumbling on “Ambient 1” it could only have been cut-out and marked for the dumpster.
We’re 550 words into this album review and I’ve barely mentioned the record itself. There’s something utterly futile in doing so. I may as well tell you what it was like being held by my grandmother as a child, or what my first breakup felt like. Writing about music — the actual notes on tape — is hard, and even the best at it devolve into clichés and approximations when you would get so much more out of just putting the thing on with an open mind.
But where’s what I can tell you about the record that may improve your experience. RETIREMENT (the album) features four tracks, each of which hovers around 10 minutes. Whereas some ambient records explore a single texture (see two records mentioned above), every track on this record feels unique in the timbres from which it draws. The album opener “20/20 Day” begins in a monastic hum, a slow “ohm” over a heavily affected bass line. The harmonic movements are slow and deliberate, with changes take place over minutes, not seconds. At times field recordings are inserted, but feel like such an organic part of the experience, you may wonder whether they’re a part of your surrounding itself.
That isn’t to say the album is without its moments of intensity. The album brims with possibilities, both realized and alluded to. “Slow Terminal” builds in tension, slowly folding in layers of distortion, and eventually building to a caustic crunch that never becomes unpalatable. The lack of edges to the record was largely intentional. “It’s a very warm album,” explained guitarist and sonic mangler Beau Finley (bassist and sonic mangler Jehf Jones rounds out the duo). “The entire thing feels like a blanket, in a way, with nothing jarring. Even the dissonant parts, and the parts with feedback are very controlled and purposeful without overturning the feel of the rest of the track.” The entire album, he says, “feels very cozy.”
I kept returning to this idea, on how appropriate it is to call a sporadically intense ambient album “cozy”. What kind of coziness is this?
The Danes have a particular fondness for coziness — or ‘hygge’ in Danish — bordering on obsession. By some accounts, Denmark is the happiest place on earth, even though Denmark has frightfully awful weather. What allows the Danes to survive the winter with their spirits intact is hygge, or the general sense of coziness felt when surrounded by warmth. The word for Danes conjures images of evenings spent in warm sweaters and wool socks, drinking liquor with friends by the fireplace. We have no word for this in English — the word “coziness” doesn’t quite do it word justice. But the emotions it signals lie somewhere buried within our chest.
I have exactly two Danish friends, and asked both to comment on whether the album was “Hygge”. One was kind enough to reply: “I don’t think ‘cozy’ is the right way to translate [hygge]” my sample of Denmark size 1 remarked. “It’s not a word that covers what we think of ‘hygge’. It might be the closest word to it, but it’s not the same.” I asked him to comment on the album, and I’ll just post our exchange because it seems to do it justice more than quoting from that exchange:
Okay, so there goes that theory. RETIREMENT may not be hygge, but in my un-Danish and un-cultured opinion the time to make that assessment hasn’t yet come. The right time is in the dead of winter, when a foot of snow separates you and any other living then. Perhaps then you’ll put on this album, give it the attention it deserves, and see if you don’t feel a little warmer.
Stream it: Yes.
Buy it: Yes. https://fuzzypanda.bandcamp.com/album/retirement
Best time to listen: First thing in the morning, or the last thing before you fall asleep. In the dead of winter preferably, as you wait for the mountain rescue team to arrive.