Review Summary: the one with the man who spends an entire record drowning
Federico Fellini’s 1963 film, 8½, is about boundaries. Boundaries between success and sadness, pain and pleasure, and -- most importantly -- between fact and falsehood. The former distinctions seem to rely on the tangibility of the latter: should the lines between reality and fiction blur, one may err to the extremes. The only place one finds stability once parameters wash away with the tide is the past -- in memories, in scripts already written; you can’t lose your footing if you already know the terrain. At one point in the movie, the protagonist, Guido, is approached by a clairvoyant who, upon reading his mind, scratches the phrase “Asa Nisi Masa” on her blackboard.
Fellini’s hollowed-out protagonist and Kyle Morton's unnamed character are, by the curse of a mutinous psyche, eerily similar. Both have the same trigger, and by extension, the same lynchpin. Wake
, the first song (or prologue -- more apposite a term here than most records) on Typhoon’s Offerings
, appropriates the phrase “Asa Nisi Masa” with a gut-wrenching desperation, the unnamed protagonist repeating it as though he’s trying to keep sand from slipping through his fingers. “Wake” is not meant literally; it’s a realisation, sudden and frightening, that the mind has crossed the finish line and is now ambling aimlessly in the beyond. Reality is paused, faces turn blank, one is “reborn” as a blank slate with nothing to recall, nothing to base their decisions or emotions on. So, as our unreliable narrator (voiced by Morton) shouts himself hoarse on the phrase, his mind is set into an irreversible cycle of deterioration and belated reaction times.
The thing about motifs is that they are meant to be repurposed. As Morton so clearly understands, there’s little point in expounding the same iteration of the same idea, especially when the character you write struggles with the very notion of consistency. In Empiricist
, you hear it -- murmured faintly in the background, behind a withdrawn acoustic guitar. The folk ensemble gradually fades in, the kick-snare pattern rustles until the music is rid of dust, lending urgency to the drone of the violins. Once more, the phrase is dragging the protagonist back into the pages of an old photo album. This time around, there is a bittersweetness so palpable it catches between the teeth: the idea of rebirth, of “hands reaching up”, should signal hope and only hope, but instead the neuroses of memory loss is superimposed over the image, sullying it. Like spilt ink on a map.
The doggedness of this “stress and strife”, as NPR’s Bob Boilen writes, is impossible to escape and equally so to cope with. Offerings
, in its darkest moments, dissolves into a dreamscape. The record at times adopts that lo-fi sheen, where the relationship between sonic palette and subject matter grows stronger. It creates a place for the protagonist to disappear into, while the audience is confronted with the bitter truth -- like studying the ghost of a smile on a dead man’s face. Algernon
is a perspective only we can see the sadness in, possessed by the spirit of an old, lonely piano; sparse notes drifting further away from the shore. ”The part of you that I love is still in there, even if it doesn’t know my name
”, is a fucking heartbreaking line -- one that I’m sure will be touched on by every other idiot attempting to tackle this album’s theme -- and behind it whispers the creak of some long-abandoned porch chair. How do you represent absence without the pain of confrontation? Typhoon have an eye for detail that their protagonist most certainly does not.
Eventually, the confrontation occurs, and it’s as ugly and austere as whatever the first half of the record prepares us for. I believe it begins with Darker
, an exasperated plea (“you won’t even fight me fair”). No, focus a little more, narrow the margins; it begins with the lyric: ”Yes, I’m ready to die”
. Are concept albums not meant to resolve? To assuage their melancholy with a message tailored to, and implying, a future? This one doesn’t because the future, wayward, has gone the same direction as the past, and this sense of darkness and decay is invoked wonderfully in the sounds that inundate Morton’s fragile narrative. The strings play out like strikes of lightning across an ashen sky, or some other equally melodramatic metaphor. The guitar is oftentimes the only instrument to keep itself from drowning in waves of reverb. These songs are full of space -- one might confuse them for anthems; they’re played loud enough and passionately enough. But they’re not anthems; they lament rather than celebrate, scaling themselves against this loss without ever outgrowing it.
“Asa Nisi Masa” is uttered once more, in Ariadne
, the final song before the monolith that is Sleep/Afterparty
. It’s this character’s last ditch effort, I think, to remember, to hold on to the experiences that made him who he was. And with the memories that spill over into the floodplains, he finds acceptance. It’s a beautiful way to end things, meeting somewhere between closure and fear of the unknown. I maintain that the album doesn’t resolve. In fact, the only certainty the narrator lands on is when he opines: ”...it’s a mixed bag for the living; full of sorrow, full of grief”
. But the certainty is what ends up being important; this clarity is what the protagonist has missed for the duration of the record. And it appears -- for the most fleeting of moments, but it appears nonetheless. If the process we just bared witness to is the self-enclosed circuit, going around and round forever, Sleep/Afterparty
is the circuit's death. Never has an ending felt so much like an ending
. Nothing could logically follow those last few lines of barely intelligible dialogue, and that's the way it was always going to be: the album lends you that closure, and then acknowledges it has nothing left to offer.