Atlas Sound's and Broadcast's Hauntological Pop
Halloween, with all its candy and kiddie costumes, makes light of a pretty serious aspect of the human condition: Ghosts are real. Maybe not in the form of ectoplasmic slimers or furniture-flinging poltergeists, but at least as a metaphorical means of explaining the memories we hold on to long after a person or thing or even a possibility is dead and gone. Who hasn't been haunted by such phantoms? There are plenty of places you can spend your Halloween this year, but if you want to hear some truly haunted music, there's only one show to see: Atlas Sound and Broadcast.
Atlas Sound is the solo recording guise of prolific Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox. Broadcast are the Birmingham, UK, duo of Trish Keenan and James Cargill. Both bands engage in what music critic Simon Reynolds, borrowing from Jacques Derrida, has dubbed "hauntology": music that explores "the paradoxical state of the spectre, which is neither being nor non-being." In general, this means lots of disembodied voices, echoes, blurry samples and hazes of sound, and a kind of sinister nostalgia or longing. But each of these acts takes a slightly different approach to busting out its ghosts.
For starters, Broadcast's latest album has an almost parodically hauntological title, Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age, which suggests echoes of the supernatural suspended neither in this world nor beyond but as radio waves of sound. Furthermore, Broadcast collaborator the Focus Group is an alias of musician/designer Julian House, whose Ghost Box label may have single-handedly inspired Reynolds's recoinage of Derrida in the first place.
Then there is the collaboration's sound, a refinement of Broadcast's heavy-lidded, vintage psychedelic pop, explored in 23 tracks prismatically fragmented across 48 minutes. The songs aren't scary, but they are slightly creepy, like nursery rhymes recited ominously out of context or the faded but color-saturated film stock of some old Italo horror flick.
"A Seancing Song" may be the album's single best example of all this, both in its literal title and its composition. It begins with an eerie singsong rhyme, almost a cappella except for what sounds like a harpsichord being played as a wind chime or warped as if on an old record. Then there's an audible tape pop, and then the sound effects kick in: a door rattling against a lock, an old-timey telephone ringing, a wave of radio static and tinny, transmitted voice. Throughout the album, the tones, vocal treatments, and ambient touches chosen by the group give things a decidedly dated and spectral feel. It's all aesthetically pleasant, but just a little unsettling.
Whereas Broadcast and the Focus Group evoke a kind of mass cultural memory via the institutional sounds of the '70s, Atlas Sound's Cox is more concerned with unearthing shades of his own individual past. In this regard, Atlas Sound, with its gently layered, bedroom-recorded acoustics and hazy washes of sound, could almost be a progenitor of the more recently (and dubiously) named "chillwave" or "hypnagogic pop," with its emphasis on fond, faintly remembered nostalgia. While that stuff revels in some soft and fuzzy idealized childhood, Cox reaches back and finds his own past clouded by real darkness (his last album recalled a summer spent in hospital beds at age 16 on account of his disfiguring Marfan syndrome; Deerhunter's first album was recorded following the death of the band's original bassist). The effect is not so much "chill" as chilling—a dissonance between his delicately beautiful compositions and sometimes disturbing subject matter that is utterly compelling.
Cox has spoken of Atlas Sound's new album, Logos, as being less introspective, but certain themes understandably seem to follow him. (The album cover features Cox, nude and gaunt, with a white flare of light where his face should be, and it's both personally revealing and neatly illustrative of that idea of "neither being nor non-being.")
On "Walkabout," a duet with Noah Lennox of (culpable "chillwave" paterfamilias) Panda Bear/Animal Collective, someone asks, over a playful drum-machine beat and a merry-go-round organ loop (sampled from the Dovers' "What Am I Going to Do"), "What did you want to see/What did you want to be/When you grew up" and answers, "To go away and not look back... in looking back you may go blind." It's a hopeful-sounding song, strangely nostalgic yet wary/weary of nostalgia at the same time—the past is present and yet not present. (To connect some dots—and loops—Logos's other duet features Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab, many of whose album covers were designed by the Focus Group's House.)
The strummy, oddly upbeat opening verse of "Shelia" ends with the promise "And when we die, we'll bury ourselves," before turning into the slow, pleading chorus "'Cause no one wants to die alone." On the album's title track, over a propulsive, shaky backbeat and some gauzy, bent keys, Cox mumbles, and you can just make out the words "your ghost" and then a line about "spirits floating in the night" and maybe "find[ing] their way."
There may be no rivers of pink slime or Patrick Swayzes helping you throw pottery at this concert, but it will be teeming with ghosts both in sound and in spirit. I ain't afraid.