Interestingly enough, Slint's Spiderland
is one of those rare agreed-upon classic albums that doesn't force me to start discussing it by instinctively informing you that all that can be written about this record has already been written. We all know that Kid A
predicted the isolation and displacement of the 21st-century generation right as the damn thing got started, or that Loveless
essentially introduced an aesthetic and took it to the outer limits, transporting the listener to a different world that, in essence, was not unlike what the band managed to capture on the iconic fuzzy pink cover: critics and fans alike have dug to the essence of what makes these records work and knocked these concepts around incessantly. So incessantly, in fact, that we've come to the point at which those who weren't around to first discuss them are left out in the cold, forced to reciprocate others' opinions and analyses or scramble for something unique to say. Most "modern classic" records have received this effect--read any modern review of albums like these and you'll find similar opening sentences: "what's left to be said about this record?"
What about this one, then? We've all heard the banter on how it was at the forefront of the "post-rock" movement, but any listener that goes in with only this knowledge will undoubtedly be confused--especially considering how completely distinct the band is from Talk Talk, the other group credited with anchoring post-rock. Plus, though it contains impressive usage of dynamics and irregular structure (which certainly help the music out), the magic of the album doesn't lie in its "prog" ethos. Another much-discussed aspect--one that cleaves a little closer to what truly makes the album special--is its lyrical themes and concepts, which mainly deal with isolation and withdrawal. It's true that the thematic elements are pretty essential to the album, but, still, there's a feeling with Spiderland
that we, as simple humans, haven't uncovered nearly as much as we would like to have about this record. Sometimes, it's hard to believe this thing was even made
by humans. Those four floating heads on the iconic album cover? They know more
So, now that I've essentially admitted that analyzing this record is nearly impossible, I start with a question: not "what is left to be said?" but "where should I start?" Spiderland
is a very hard record to take apart; it's like a very complicated piece of machinery, with many components and moving parts that all do their own little job. It's also, upon further inspection, a very sturdy and hardworking machine--hell, a nearly flawless one. So, with that in mind, I'm going to take an unconventional route: by describing a single song that perfectly demonstrates the power of this album.
We start with "Don, Aman". This track, placed in the middle of the album, is, musically, actually quite atypical of the rest of Spiderland
(the most prominent distinction being that it features no drums or percussion). But, in the way it so eerily and precisely details the nature of human emotion, it's a fully realized sample of the album's gifts (which, of course, isn't to imply that the other tracks are in any way inessential). The track features a dark, spoken narrative, depicting Don, its protagonist, as he deals with himself at a party. Don feels alone in a crowd, his only actions amounting to "walking through an empty house" and "speaking to an imaginary audience". As Don feels embarrassment for his empty conversation and reduces himself to doing something as ultimately fruitless as taking a piss outside just to feel better, the listener easily connects with these awful feelings of isolation. Though it may be a large and sweeping generalization, I'm willing to bet we've all felt the way Don does before. We walk around parties, talking to people we don't really care about only to slip up and say something embarrassing, exiting the room with hands shuffling in pockets, trying to distract ourselves with anything, anything
, to get these awful feelings out of our heads. We wade through crowds of people, make awkward waves to old acquaintances it turns out weren't even paying attention to us in the first place. We look around in an effort to look preoccupied, walk from one side of the room to another without purpose, see someone we want to talk to only to tell ourselves "oh she's talking to that guy and it would be awkward to interrupt her I'll just say 'hi' to her when she next passes me. Who should I talk to next oh I look like I'm just taking up space here let me look at the clock for a second okay now I'm looking at my shoes okay now I am walking just walk walk walk don't think did he just wave at me? I think he did I'll just flash a quick smile okay I am now checking my phone if someone walks up to me I can quickly flip it off and say 'hi' and maybe engage them in conversation oh my God I need to get out out out."
is kind of like that. It traces human desolation with such intimacy and veracity that its power becomes overwhelming--not just on "Don, Aman", but all throughout the album. Extremely important is that, among the dissonant guitar chords and time-signature changes, anyone can relate
, even if the story is about Don and not them. Compare this to albums like The Wall
(which, I must stress, is still an excellent album), and you'll find that, though the albums have similar themes of isolation, the personal touch that Slint give their lyrical content makes all the difference.
However, to claim that Spiderland
is a purely "lyrical" album would be to ignore that the album is also completely brilliant in the musical department, boldly staring down musical convention and uniformity. Upon its release in 1991, the amount of innovation contained within was unprecedented, a brilliant amalgamation of the rawness of indie-rock, the severity of heavy metal, and the unpredictability of prog-rock. Yet, Spiderland
doesn't sound like a hybrid of genres but rather something new, a breed of dark, brooding rock music that wasn't afraid to be abrasive or even confusing.
Take, for example, "Nosferatu Man". Just as "Don, Aman" serves as a perfect example of the band's lyrical prowess, this track exemplifies their unique brand of discordant and scorched rock music. Right off the bat, the song features a dissonant guitar riff in 5/4, played in a way that allows it to be intriguing but not overly deliberate. Over the eerie riff, frontman Brian McMahan gives his characteristic spoken-word narrative ("I live in a castle / I am a prince / On days I try / To please my queen"), pushing the song from creepy to nearly horrifying--especially when the song turns into a thrashy crunch-fest towards the end. Soon, it's easy to see that the frightening nature of McMahan's monotone narration is not only matched but complemented by the music--Slint, with this album, made the brilliant realization that mood can be conveyed via music with more than just a minor or major key change. This is what Spiderland
is all about
: the band use their innovative "math-rock", their dissonant guitar riffs, their pounding and mechanical drums, their breathy narratives, and turn them into a chillingly atmospheric pieces of "post-rock" in the purest sense--which is that they sound like the logical extension of what we know as rock music.
Now, there are
a few things that have been dealt with time and time again in discussions of Spiderland
, one of which is its influence. And, yes, Slint's emotion-driven, angular form of rock music has certainly been visible in others' music since the release of Spiderland
: from the precise crescendos of Explosions in the Sky and Isis to the unrelentingly atmospheric soundscapes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the album has been far-reaching, setting off a legion of imitators and sound-alikes, moreso than nearly any other "classic" album released in the past 20 years. It can be compared to the Velvet Underground's debut in that sense: in 1991, next to nobody heard Spiderland
, but everyone that did went out, made a band, and tried to be the next Slint--such is the power of this record.
So, after writing that this record cannot be analyzed and then attempting to do so myself, where have I left myself? Where have I left this record? All I know is that, if I've left you wanting to listen to this record, I've done my job. Spiderland
, indeed, is a record that speaks entirely for itself, not so much negating criticism and discussion as much as making it seem like a lesser form of appreciating it; something that only should be done when the record isn't on-hand. Trying to discuss the music contained within this album with only my little words is a little illogical, but it's the best I can do. The only thing more I can say is that these guys, these four young men from Kentucky, managed to spin their jagged guitar riffs, thumping drums, and murky basslines together to form something completely unusual, bleak, powerful, and yet, in the midst of it all, totally human. You can ask me to explain why I love it, or why it works, or the situational context in which it was created. Just don't ask me how they did it. Please, just listen.