Review Summary: Hecker Hecker Low Low
Ever had a really bad week? Not from anything major casting some extended pall over your mood, that's a different thing— I mean, do you ever have a week where every little thing just seems to throw an extra wrench in your works? Day after day, you step in a puddle and lose $20 and get a zit right on the tip of your nose and forget to run an errand and the dog throws up on your jacket and the place you wanted to go for lunch is closed early and then the internet is out because of course the stupid internet is out
. That's the kind of week I've been having. The kind of week where the press release for possibly my favorite living artist's new album started to read more like a threat than anything else: a jagged anti-relaxant
. Purgatorial and seasick
. Dismissing "false positive corporate ambient". On the heels of two increasingly charmless excursions into Gagaku clatter, it painted a picture of an auteur more willfully abstruse than ever, driven even further from the luxuriant, drone-indebted soundscapes of Harmony in Ultraviolet
and An Imaginary Country
by a fear of being lumped in with anything too trendy or approachable. I didn't want
an "anti-relaxant" from No Highs
— I kinda just wanted a sleep aid.
I should have known better than to doubt that Tim Hecker could pull off both those things simultaneously. No Highs
could have just as easily billed itself as a "return to form", a dive back into the scope and dramatic flair that defined Ravedeath, 1972
and (in its own way) Virgins
. Cavernous miasmas of re-re-re-refracted orchestration and spindly, wailing electro-treble are once more the order of the day! Though movements often begin and end rendered in harsh, (post-)minimalist relief, they just as often reach their zenith shrouded in some of Hecker's most enchantingly vast arrangements to date. The four tracks acting as the album's tentpoles— "Monotony", "Lotus Light", "Anxiety", and "Living Spa Water"— envelop the senses as only the best ambient music can, allowing tense, prickling knots of dissonance sufficient berths to ease themselves into prismatic atmospheres, the ever-quickening pulse underpinning the first three lending the album a hazy throughline that the appropriately tranquil "Living Spa Water" resolves with gusto. Tim Hecker is, inarguably, at the top of his field, and for much of its runtime, No Highs
delivers on everything an album statement from such an artist must: a fresh-feeling spin on familiar modi operandi
, a reassurance that his formidable ability to both challenge and soothe remains near-wholly intact.
Though there's enough certified grade-A ~ambience~
to quell my initial misgivings regarding its temperament, No Highs
does show a considerable effort to back up its purported purgatoriality and/or seasickness, and it's here where things get considerably thornier, though not altogether worse. Saxophonist-of-the-moment Colin Stetson lends his inimitable playing to, most notably, "Monotony II" and "Total Garbage". Both are thoroughly electrified by his presence; on the former, Hecker seems nearly invisible around Stetson's buffeting physicality. The presence of not just a collaborator but a real in-the-booth performer on an album like this has some interesting knock-on effects, drawing attention to the moments where nothing is seemingly being capital-P Played, calling into question which sounds come from the metaphorical stage, and which from behind the metaphorical camera. Stetson's heavy stylistic watermark anchors some thematic concerns re: persona and voice that, on previous Hecker albums, have felt frustratingly adrift (hi, Love Streams
), but the challenge he represents is one Hecker can be just-as-frustratingly reluctant to rise to.
Even grading on the curve of ambient, No Highs
is, often, a profoundly lonely-feeling album, and by extension more content to gaze upon its absences than it perhaps ought to be. Some shorter tracks like "Sense Suppression" and "In Your Mind" feel defined chiefly by their enormous swathes of negative space, the voids where some notion of either "art" or "artist" is pointedly meant to be. It's a simple matter to mine the contrast for some nebulous "statement", but a simpler one still to call slightness slightness. Moments here become backgrounds seeking foregrounds and vice versa, and the home runs elsewhere prove that Hecker can fill the slivers of down-time they offer more fruitfully: "Total Garbage"'s sullen trudge takes Virgins
' electroacoustic chirrups to never before seen depths of swirling murky hopelessness, and "Pulse Depression" sets a wonderfully gelatinous, numbed-cold scene for "Anxiety"'s twitching unrest. In its totality, No Highs
reads as every bit the conflicted, dissatisfied album it's been sold as— for better and, occasionally, for worse.
I hope it's clear I'm harping on minor gripes here. Tim Hecker has proven that he can (and very much wants to) be held to a trailblazer's standard; maybe it's partially that standard that makes an outing as roundly accomplished as this feel as much a muted non-event as it does. The palettes on offer are frequently gorgeous and sometimes even transcendent, but No Highs
' pervasive gloom and downer vibes render it more standoffish than the lofty fear and trembling of Ravedeath
or the playful eclecticism of Radio Amor
. In the week I’ve spent with it, re-listens have not come naturally, lousy with growers though Hecker’s oeuvre may be. It sounds like great music that nobody had all that much fun making. Who knows, maybe he's just having a bad week.