I’ve had Ithica‘s self-titled release for a while now. I didn’t neglect to review it because it’s bad, but because it’s so good.
I have to think about Ithica because it is a truly genre-less piece of work. To say it’s indie-rock is a bit incorrect, because there are few guitars and even fewer directly rock-oriented moves. It’s got some pop melodies, but it’s not pop. It’s deeply electronic, but very human. It’s lushly orchestrated but never indulgent. It’s got high ideals, a cinematic scope, and immaculate production. It’s gorgeous, but never saccharine or maudlin.
Enough with the nots. It is a sort of extra-beautiful industrial music, in that it is electronic, rhythmic music for the sake of music. It’s a concept album about the breakdown of a family through the eyes of a child; a sort of The Suburbs meets OK Computer meets Mommy Dearest. It has similarities to TV on the Radio, although I can’t entirely put my finger on what it is about the two that are the same.
The songs are not structured in normal pop structures; they flow and morph as Ithica feels they should. The best example of their sound is “There Is Love In The Ceiling,” which starts off with distant atmospheric synths underlaid by a deep rumble. A mildly distorted breakbeat fades into another breakbeat, louder and less distorted. A child’s voice comes in, reverbed and repeated:
there is love in every secret drawer.”
It’s dark. It’s heavy, emotionally (see why I didn’t want to deal with this in my dark and heavy year?). The song builds as the lyrics go through, introducing a piano elegy into the rhythmic mix, as well as some faux strings that are clearly faux but beautiful because of their fakeness in the context of the tune.
Then a major chord appears; the tune shifts lyrically and melodically, although not entirely to a major key. “I believe those dead will live again/there is love in the ceiling,” the voice intones. Then the song ends.
Other places a male vocalist sings; his voice has a plaintive honesty that meshes perfectly with these deeply confessional and ruminative tracks. The melodic ideas from “There Is Love In The Ceiling” continue throughout the album: atmospheric synths, beautiful piano, heavy drumming and a very personal mood.
Some albums feel like a diary being read to you; this feels like sitting next to someone as their life is playing out before you. These tracks are difficult to forget because they are so powerful. The only track that isn’t incredibly appealing is “My Manic Mother Quietly Folding Clothes,” which has a very sterile feel, complete with whirring machine noises, sludgy bass and wailing siren-esque noise. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s not supposed to; it’s about not feeling anything. The sound perfectly matches the lyrical intent, making it excellent even it is (intentional) coldness.
“A Grace” is another heart-rending highlight, as the piano-heavy track depicts a scene where a child makes a crucifixion scene out of his toys, much to the horror of his mother. It drags in themes of childhood lost, regret, guilt, pain, family, religion, grace and more without ever preaching. If you don’t feel wrung out at the end of the tune, I would recommend you listen again with your ears turned on.
Albums like Ithica are why I don’t make my best-of list until February of the following year. This is one of the best releases of the year, because there’s no one else this year that even tried to do what Ithica excelled at. This is a singular vision completed excellently; it’s an achievement on par with The Postal Service’s Give Up, which was so good that they didn’t even try a follow-up. Let’s hope that Ithica has something else to say, because this concept album is beautiful and nearly perfect. I’ve never heard anything like it, and that’s amazing.