Review Summary: Twitch.
I have had my fair share of dalliances with insomnia, and while jetlag usually instigates them, they are fueled by overwhelming restlessness. The sensation of remaining still is a profoundly uncomfortable one; there's a reason why sleep paralysis is supposed to happen while you're unconscious. And so when I first played Laurel Halo's new album while trying to fall asleep, I found myself awakening periodically to a strange prickling sensation; these were tones going straight into my body, matching up with its erratic rhythms. This was the soundtrack to those sleepless nights, and it couldn't have been coincidental that the few physical spaces that it did evoke -- an airplane cabin here, a claustrophobic elevator there -- were transient and intensely familiar to my hazily tired self. The appropriately titled Quarantine
opens with a humming cluster of notes and a nauseously distorted piano figure, effectively setting the modus operandi: Halo is not grounding us in any semblance of stability. Instead, this album, her debut full-length for Hyperdub, exists almost entirely in the liminal space between ethereality and anxiety. Her voice, while undeniably lovely, is left notably untreated for the most part, attracting attention to its cracking imperfections and to Halo's deliberately unorthodox phrasing; consequently we are left occupying the cavernous gap left between the carefully constructed sterility of the instrumentals and the nearly unbearable humanness of the vocals. To make things even more unsettling, those aseptic washes of sound are imbued with a palpable warmth while the voice sounds cold and somehow oppressive.
Over the course of the album's twelve expertly sequenced tracks, this dichotomy between technology and humanity shifts, and occasionally disappears; "Airsick", "MK Ultra", and "Light + Space" all sound like polar opposites meeting at some weird, gorgeous point. Unsurprisingly, those three songs are the most traditionally pretty ones on Quarantine
, despite their thorny contrapuntal writing and refusal to fall into a steady meter. It makes sense that, given the tricky irregularities of the music, Halo deals in simple, vague lyrics. The mantras that lead the rapturous "Thaw" through its rumbling ambience read a bit like flower-child self-help ("Don't get addicted to anything. Just keep on walking. One foot in front of the other. Forward motion's the only answer.") but in context sound at once both eerie and healing, and not remotely hippy. In fact, it's incredibly futuristic: this is what motivational speaking sounds like in a world where we've been subsumed by our digitalism. At the same time, Halo often treats her words like a prison; the divisive, in-your-face "Years" revolves around repeated chants of "Making eye contact. I will never see you again. You're mad 'cause I will not leave you alone." And so when she inevitably breaks free, she sounds understandably liberated. As she intones at the album's close: "Words are just words that you forget." If "Thaw" was an urging to move forward in some nonspecific difficult space, "Light + Space" is the freeing of the human soul from the body via a refracted, abstract vision of future technologies.
And yet, despite all this fanciful talk about the implications and/or conceptual weight of the album ("post-human" is a term I've seen thrown around with some frequency), what ultimately hits hardest is the aesthetic singularity of everything here. Alongside artists like Grimes, Julia Holter, and Purity Ring, Laurel Halo represents a happy recent tendency in "pop" (a word that seems to become more meaningless with each passing day, not to mention year) to have artists define their own ground rules from release to release. And the queasy soundscapes crafted on Quarantine
stand as some of the most exquisitely beautiful work released this year. It's harrowing stuff, to be sure ("Carcass" in particular earns its title), but at its best -- a point it reaches frequently -- it shoots past the physical, home of twitching discomfort and involuntary reaction, and straight into the euphorically sublime. Why the hell did I even try sleeping to that?