I tend to have strong reactions to things. If I love something, I go out of my way to bathe it in flowery oils while singing its favorite song as the sun trickles down the wall of the sky, leaving spare rays of thought tingling in the mind of the bad sleeper. If I hate something, I chase it and beat it with a barbed wire-wrapped scythe while my backup throws lighters and gas cans all over the place until I feel better. I hope you enjoyed that look into my internal landscape.
My experience with Spiderland has been almost totally unique in that I have absolutely no idea how to feel about it. Every tissue in my heart wants to hate it on a conceptual level, and every cell in my brain wants to love it on an intellectual level. The result is a listening experience that’s filled me with absolute confusion, far more then I believe was intended. I haven’t decided whether this is frustrating or fascinating yet, as I’ve never really been in a situation like this before. Well, I’ll break it down and see how it comes out.
I’ve made it no secret that my criticism philosophy stems from the idea that open-minded nuance is the end-all be-all goal. I’ve forced myself to reconcile with the idea that there are no bad genres and that approaches to art I would have dismissed or even hated simply for existing have, in fact, as much potential as ideas that instantly appeal to me. In general, I’ve used this philosophy to break down the barrier between me and “challenging” music, like jazz and experimental. It’s worked out very well, I must say.
Here, then, is my ultimate challenge. In some alternate universe, Spiderland could very well have been conceived like this:
Slint McFrontman: Hey, you know that Steven guy?
Side McSlintman: There’s lots of guys named Steven, but somehow I know which one you’re talking about.
Slint McFrontman: So, you know how he’s got, like, all these musical ticks?
Side McSlintman: You mean like soaring melodicism, thickly luxurious arrangements, richly passionate vocals, and bombastic heart-on-sleeve emotion?
Slint McFrontman: Yeah. So…what if we made, like, an album, that was, like, the opposite of all those things?
Side takes a moment to pick his jaw up off the floor.
Side McSlintman: THAT IS BRILLIANT. We could not only force him to face the extreme example of what his open-mindedness should force him to give a fair shot, but we would take home all the prizes at the Let’s Annoy Steven Awards! I’ll get the guys in the studio right now!
As you could probably gather, this was not an easy listen for me. Spiderland’s main selling points are melodies that are minimalist to the point of barely existing, arrangements that more or less follow the same pattern, blankly spoken pessimistic poetry with almost no vocal melodies, all for the purpose of creating the most clinical, emotionally distant music possible. This album is so lacking in human warmth that I can actually FEEL my body temperature decline as I listen to it. It’s not everything I hate in music, but it’s everything I don’t want in music, and the result is an album that, even if my opinion of it improves, I know I will never be able to fully connect with, much less love. It’s just too cold. My system of “that’s okay, it’s what it’s TRYING to be” has failed me. Sorry.
BUUUUUUUUT…I’ll have to come right out and say that this album is the best possible version of itself it can possibly be. The melodies are hardly resonant, but they’re INTENSE. Every note has significant impact because there’s so few of them. This is not “strangle everything so we look artsy” minimalism, this is TRUE minimalism, and a great example thereof. The same applies to the arrangements, which feel like they could have been played by machines. The effect is mind-bending, unnerving, and fascinating.
The lyrics are excellent as well. The stories they tell are actually very straightforward and easy to follow, but in a neat twist it’s the events being described, rather than how they’re described, that capture attention. The best example is the haunting “Don, Aman”, which takes an already creepy arrangement and adds a good layer of hollow pessimism to it with a story about a partygoer who loses the will to live. The desperate whimpers of “Washer” are the closest the album comes to actually invoking emotion, rather than coldly presenting a situation you might have an emotional response to. The lyrics, above all else, are well-conceived.
All this is cold comfort (heh) for those who highly value music (and art in general) as an emotional experience. I am an ardent member of this camp, but I will sigh and acknowledge a masterfully crafted album when I see one. The playing, writing, and atmosphere are all incredibly tight and professional, and were I a musician I could have a lot of fun breaking into all the amazing technical flourishes in here. I’m definitely glad I listened to this album, as it was without a doubt a one-of-a-kind experience, and I can see myself returning to it, but not often.
In some ways, I feel inclined to give the album extra points so I can feel I more confidently conquered my barriers, but I’ve tried to make my scores as honest as possible. I’ve taken up the “how well does it communicate the intended mood” system, so I suppose that helps, but I won’t rate it higher than my enjoyment allows me too. For better or worse, this is essential listening. God help me.
Music: 5/5 Probably the most painful 5/5 I’ve ever given, but it’s a 5/5 nonetheless.
Thematic Content: 5/5
Resonance: 1/5 Almost gave it a zero, but I suppose that’s the point…
Experience: Slowly immersing yourself in a tank of ice water for purposes of recreation. Also, the tank is surrounded with gravestones and occasionally jets come on. This album is weird.
7/10. Best Song: Don, Aman