Review Summary: A beautiful mourning.
Mid-year Review Series (Part 5):
How can one process grief and losses without inadvertently exploiting or exaggerating them? That is one of the questions when I kept wondering when I completed the Virginia Woolf novel To The Lighthouse
, as I find the Ramsay family and their guests boarding on their journey of self-discovery ten years after their delayed plan to sail to the lighthouse. It is one difficult work to understand, but a highly fulfilling one once you grasp its trope, much like La Dispute
’s 2019 album that is Panorama
. While me myself wasn’t aware of the existence of the Michigan group until the release of this record, it nonetheless captivated me with vocalist/lyricist Jordan Dreyer’s anguished spoken-word delivery and his haunting poetry regarding to the both his hometown in Grand Rapid and his partner’s hometown in Lowell, depicting the brooding dark side of the suburban life and the aching side of grief that has never sounded so chillingly intriguing.
For the first time, you could tell that Panorama
is less restrained musically when compared to the cathartic Wildlife
and the introspective Rooms of the House
since you could hear the music performed by the band sounds less like a solid studio recording than a jamming session recorded in a professional studio. Take “Rhodonite and Grief” for instance, as we find the song accompanied by the band’s jazzy rhythms, single-noted guitars lines and, at the 1:10 mark, a somber horn section, as if the band improvised throughout the whole song, changing their sounds according to Dreyer’s lyrics about the unsatisfying suburban life in grief through his lens, whether is the significant other rushing over nothing (“Watched you hurry on across the parking lot/Image of your life in your mind fades”), the repeating, mundane cycles(“Weeks and months go by like this/We function on routines”), or the resulting painful boredom(“‘Kill me by surprise,’ you said, ‘I don’t want to stay alive to watch the words go first like hers’”). You can also hear how the guitars sparsely strummed and drums hit sparsely in “You Ascendant”, or guitar and bass chugged along with Dreyer’s spoken word in songs like “Anxiety Panorama”. “There You Are (Hiding Place)” and “View from Our Bedroom Window” as if the instrumental members improvised according to their frontman’s delivery. While such feature could lead the album to be a crumbling, messy effort, it ended up helping the album to be more band-oriented, as it enhances the chemistry within the band, and the resulting guitars, bass, and drums could blend into a mesmerizing texture towards the jagged speaking of Dreyer himself. As a result, you could feel the band perform the songs in harmony without stepping on each other toes, creating a unified effort that surpassed the wordy, fractured predecessor.
With that being said, Dreyer’s emotional poems and powerful delivery remain essential. The two-part grief-stricken romantic saga “Fulton Street” is the exemplary: After the glimmering electronic intro “Rose Quartz”, the ending drone progress into the chilling “Fulton Street I”, where we find Dreyer comforting his significant other after an accidental death of a friend/family member, as he observed her in a painful grief when he follow her eyes and picking a dress for the funeral, and trying various ways to help her coping the pain such as put a rose quartz underneath a mattress, while screaming that he also failed to deal with his pain through his fail of even putting flowers by the street as a respect to the dead; on the other hand, the more aggressive “Fulton Street II”, the partner became more distant with him and facing mental breakdown due to the grief, describing her figure as a lonely pilgrim AND an angrily swung chain, and finding her trembling down into nothing and sink like an anchor, and that her anxiety and grief lingers around her like painted on her shoulder blade while yelping that he will be the one to carry all the burden and pain and follow her all the way and that all the anger could evaporate and the burden to break like dilapidated roof beams. With such astonishing expression on his emotional lyrics, marking an improvement from the melodramatic Somewhere at the Bottom…
, you could tell that Dreyer, like his bandmates musically, aged gracefully along with his age in terms of his songwriting and vocal delivery, like a dirty cygnet matured into a white swan. If that does not convince you, have a look on how he pens about witnessing his relationship crumbling down by anxiety in the blistering “Anxiety Panorama”, portraying her wrath in the bass-driven “View from Our Bedroom Window”, lamenting about the misery brought by the distancing relationship in the heavy “Footsteps at the Pond”, and the calming her down in the quiet-loud-dynamic highlight “There You Are (Hiding Place)”. Don’t expect the ambitious storytelling of “King Park” or frenzied moments like “A Departure” in this record, as here you can hear Dreyer at his most mature and natural, while continuing to be the focal point which made La Dispute such a remarkable band of the post-hardcore genre.
Amidst all the dynamic moments, the band also provided space for more tranquil and intimate moments, serving as the palette cleanser in the overall rocking record. Midway through the album, the band took us a trip “In Northern Michigan”, where the ambient track finds Dreyer recalls his peaceful, enjoyable trip there with his significant other, contrasting the suffocating, anguished present, all the while being accompanied with the droning, shoegaze-like guitar notes, the slightly overdriven guitar riffs, and sparse percussions. But it is the epic closer that is “You Ascendant” sends the intimate nature of the record to a breathtaking height, with Dreyer’s words are only accompanied by the sparse guitar strumming and drums, fit the stream-of-consciousness poem of Dreyer in the song, as he and his partner gradually overcome their inner pain, yet ultimately, the tension is maintained without breaking into a climax at all, as if the couple carried on with the scars created by the chaos, all the while walking out from the dark, toxic haze of grief and misery.
Even though the improvisational nature of the record led to its looser sound and less explosive when compared to their early works which could lead fans to lose interest, it nonetheless becomes the band’s return to form after the slightly disappointing Rooms of the House
, as well as the resulting culmination after three full-lengths and decade-long career. If anything, the album is a 2010s’ answer to Sufjan Stevens
, only to be more akin to the more personal trope, driven by the rumbling post-hardcore sonics of mewithoutyou
instead of the chiming indie-folk of Stevens himself, as it finds vocalist Dreyer outlined each snapshot of the grief with immaculate details with his poetic fiction, and his bandmates colored the pictures with their music, creating a metaphorical film that is vibrant as it is monochromatic. Not only La Dispute created a forum for unleashing their anguish and melancholy, but they also create one for their listeners. Like the Ramsays and their guests at the final chapter of To The Lighthouse
, the band finally swam above the grief and misery they lamented prior, and thus creating a highly remarkable tour de force in their decade long career, one that deserve a spot in any 2019 year-end list and even a decade-end list, and a audio poem collection that you could not help but listen repeatedly.
Personal Rating: 4.6/5
Fulton Street I
Fulton Street II
Rhodonite and Grief
There You Are (Hiding Place)