Mourning itself is so personal that it is largely insulated from standard interpretation of people’s actions: unbeatable legends stumble and expectations falter. It is so hard to deal with that some people would rather call it a mental illness. Some people write albums in response. Grief albums are not common (at least, not near as common as breakup albums), but they do exist. The Collection’s Ars Moriendi is a revelatory example. However, grief albums are uncommonly hard to review. How do you explain the sound of someone’s ache, nevermind judge whether it’s good or not? Yet people who write about music are called upon to do this from time to time, and JPH‘s Songs of Loss is the latest call to somehow muddle through.
Songs of Loss would be hard to explain even if it weren’t so openly dealing with the loss of the artist’s father. The music itself draws a triangle between outsider atonality and erratic rhythm (“Song 7,” “Song 2”), ambient electro-acoustic music (“Song 8,” “Song 4”), and atypical but recognizable singer-songwriter work (“Song 1,” “Song 6”). Each individual song leans toward one point of the triangle, but the traces of each influence stamp themselves on every piece. Imagine if LCD Soundsystem had committed to only using acoustic instruments but still wanted to make the same sort of rhythms, or if Jandek had become dancier. These are strange things to try to imagine, I am aware.
There’s one other connection to LCD Soundsystem: “Someone Great” is the rare song that sees an artist obviously deep in the mourning process turning out complex, idiosyncratic work that fits within a pre-existing ouerve. (“I Hope You Die” by Wye Oak also falls in this category.) JPH’s work here is raw with grief: the lyrics of each tune, insofar as they exist, are specifically about questions of death and dying. But the work is also carefully developed within a specific vision. Jordan Hoban’s modus operandi on this release is to create a drone and manipulate what goes on atop it. However, the drones are unusual, as “Song 0” loops a hiccuping tom-and-snare-rim beat; “Song 3” puts a distant casio on repeat; “Song 6” uses a chanted lyric stream as the base for dissonant piano; and first part of “Song 8” builds a complicated ostinato from accordion, shaker, and palm-muted guitar. The 8 and a half minutes of “Song 8” are almost minimalist in a Reich-ian way, as the guitar noodling on top of the structure is almost more “variation” than riffing.
On top of those structures Hoban’s whispery voice alternates between talking, singing, and whispering. This is a very personal record, and so I am not going to talk about the lyrics at all beyond that. The overall effect of the instruments + lyrics is much different than a standard album. I am not much for the “art can create empathy with other people” argument, because not much art has ever made me feel like I was walking in other people’s shoes. However, the atypical musical environment and close proximity with the lyrics about death made me aware that I would definitely not have thought to create this. I am aware of being very near someone else’s experience of grief. But it’s not an overtly crushingly sad release; the sadness is omnipresent, but often in the spaces between the background and the frontmatter. There’s a palpable sense of absence that Hoban has carefully cultivated. Songs of Loss is an unique album that lets you enter into a grieving process both artistically and emotionally. That’s valuable time spent, regardless of whether you’ve been through a death recently.