Did you know that computers are physically incapable of making mistakes?* They complete patterns exactly as they are told or refuse to do them at all. There is no partial or halfway with computers: a thing completes perfectly or fails totally. 1 or 0. This is one of many reasons why In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is such a huge, important statement: in an era where we can turn the human messiness into pitch-perfection via machine, it is a countercultural move to celebrate the human mess. It is in this spirit that I fell in love with Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders.
You Are Everything or: The Art of Being Nothing in Particular lets you know what’s going to happen before the music even starts: naming your band “The Learning Disorders” takes a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor, while referencing a Rumi poem and existential ennui in the title lets you know more about the personality powering these songs. Then that goofy/wonderful album art lets you know this is going to be a lo-fi, DIY, personal sort of record. And Matthew Squires delivers on all of that: this is the sort of music that can only be called indie-rock, that sort of music that hardly existed except perhaps in the imagination of The Velvet Underground before the lo-fi ’90s came along and got themselves culminated in Jeff Mangum and co.
Yes, this is raw, quirky, unusual, wholly irresistible music. “An Ancient Voice” pairs Squires’ unique voice against a plaintive, reverb-laden fingerpicking pattern to deliver lines of existential glee and terror: “a miracle more common than a clump of dirt / Yours is a life that’s lived and died as one eternal search / Tell me what it is you seek / and is that message heavy or are my ears weak?” When he intones, “this life is happening” in his speak-sing tones, it’s tough to forget. “The Turnings of the Earth (And Other Observations)” puts a Graceland-esque pop spin on the indie-rock sound, while “A Song for a Future Phoenix” delivers a strong arrangement. The repeated call of “we’re going home!” in “We Are Donkeys” gives me a catch in my throat.
But my favorite moment comes in “Claim Your Birthright!”, where Squires’ voice reaches for a high note in a moment of passion, hollering out “I-i, hope you forgive the whole world.” It doesn’t quite make it up there to that first note; but instead of being horrible, it charmingly underscores the deep humanity of the sentiment. We’re not computers. We make partial perfection, occasional wonderfulness, and incomplete beauty. But that, to me, is more real and excellent than “perfection” that we can achieve with autotuning. It helps that Squires is an excellent songwriter; these songs are memorable and poignant in their construction, even without the endearing, passionate performances. But when strong songs, clever arrangements, and memorable performances come together, magic can happen. And You Are Everything has some very magical moments.
*A friend noted that computers can actually make mistakes in memory called “soft errors.” I feel my point, however, holds: humans are a lot squishier than computers in terms of straight logic.