The return to live music has helped us put faces back to voices.


In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate critic Carl Wilson talks about the year in music with other critics – starring Lindsay Zoladz, New York Times contributor, freelance writer Briana Younger, NPR music critic Ann Powers, Glitter in the dark author Sasha Geffen, Pitchfork editor Jenn Pelly, WXNP Nashville Jewly Hight editorial director, Penguin Books author Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, critic Steacy Easton, Slate pop culture critic Jack Hamilton and Slate’s host Chris Molanphy Hit parade.

Hi friends,

As some of you probably have, I returned to live music this year. The month of June marked my first show after 16 months free from contagion. I walked into the room hoping for catharsis, thinking that the anxiety I had accumulated the year before might dissipate upon finding thousands of strangers. Something else happened: I had trained my body in certain nervous patterns, and when I went to shows, I brought my body with me. He tensed in front of the crowd, getting used to seeing others as threats. My desire to resume old habits of joy, communion and pleasure was opposed to new frightening habits, habits intended to ward off danger. I felt split, my impulses stretching in two directions at once, leaving a hollow at their origin.

Much of the music I loved this year was about ways to unravel that ambivalence. low Hey what ccontinued the abrasion experiments of 2018 Double negation. For nearly 30 years, the sound and appeal of this group has been based on the interplay between the voices of its singers, Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, singing in harmony, their distinct but closely related voices. Mimi’s sound is purer and she uses more vibrato; Alan’s is rougher, more wrinkled around the edges. When they come together, it’s like quicksilver sliding on weathered bark.

The new album complicates this arrangement, which for decades animated Low’s simple and icy songs. On a song like “Hey”, I hear Alan and I hear Mimi, then I also hear a third voice. Throughout the album, the two singers route their vocals through heavy digital processing, eliminating certain frequencies or exaggerating others until they produce a metallic effect from a distance. Often, vocoders allude to the “source” voice they are corrupting. A plosive or a whistle betrays the body inside the machine; false sound traces the shape of reality, like shrink film on the skin. But I don’t hear anything inside that third voice; I can’t say which singer is its source. It emerges, ghostly, from its environment without a human referent, resonating all by itself.

In Todd Haynes ‘documentary Velvet Underground, released in the fall on Apple TV +, Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman remembers watching the band live and hearing harmonics that had no source, that seemed to come from of the total sum of each instrument played on stage at one time. He called the phenomenon “group sound”. But what happens when a voice articulating a language is equally sourceless?

In most of the music that pushed me the most this year, I hear voices that distort, voices that quiver and break, voices that sound like they came out of nowhere. There are the frozen strings of half intelligible syllables shining through Kool-Aid heart pumps, a collaborative album by Seth Graham and Mari Maurice working together under the unpronounceable name —__ – ___. There are the crystalline cries for the release of Arca and Planningtorock on the song of the first “Queer”. There are weirdly authoritative snippets of text-to-speech narration throughout Lucy Liyou’s album. Practice, stiff robot voices that highlight the artist’s own muffled and distorted voice. There are voices wavering off their pitch throughout Loraine James Reflection, playing close to her ear and far from her at the same time, winding between her haunting and unstable beats.

In a destabilized year, a year marked by tech-mediated sociality and pervasive grief and fear like a static buzz to the bone, these voices have been like guides.

These voices indicate to me both presence and absence; something is there, making sound, and yet this something often stands out as if it had no origin, emerging from the void. In a destabilized year, a year marked by tech-mediated sociality and pervasive grief and fear like a static buzz to the bone, these voices have been like guides. They reflect the churn, as you say, Carl, pointing out the weirdness of the arrangements and rituals that were so quickly standardized as preventative measures. They beckoned towards lingering feelings of dislocation, a sense of forgetting time and space. They help me go through feelings that I find it hard to place. I saw friends through my phone screen, then those friends are dead, and after they die, I can look at their photos on the same screen that I used to talk to them when they were alive.

In their half-light, these unreal voices also disturb an illusion that listeners like to keep: that music is a direct current of intimacy between source and destination, musician and fan. In the emotional act of listening, it can be easy to do away with all of the systems that make music as it is now. Someone needs to make headphones that vibrate so precisely that they can mimic the exact sound of an absent person’s voice. Someone is programming the computer I’m using and the software that runs on it. Someone records, mixes and masters the sounds that become music in our ears. When you like an album, you like a lot of things that have disappeared. By creating a void within the voice, that instrument that most strongly cements the illusion of listening intimacy, these artists allude to all that has disappeared. They move back and widen the frame.

I finally came back to my body. It was at a 100 guy show, where Laura Les and Dylan Brady talked and sang through harsh, pixelated Auto-Tune all night long. I love the dissonance that occurs when I can see a person right in front of me and their voice sounds like they’ve been argued through a Sega Genesis before it reaches my ears. It’s a good joke. There were huge novelty speakers on either side of the stage, like computer speakers but 12 feet tall, and these also suggested the smoke and mirrors that are part of the whole music, live or otherwise, that is bought and sold. I found my body in the mosh pit, moving amid the tangle of other bodies, slipping out of the net of my tightly woven fear for a moment, feeling an opening, feeling it would only stay open for so long .

This might be the last thing you should say

– SG

Top 10 albums (it’s constantly changing, but roughly speaking):

1. Low – Hey what
2. The Rain – Tired
3. —__ – ___ – Kool-Aid heart pumps
4. Pom Pom Squad – Death of a cheerleader
5. Lingua Ignota – Sinner get ready
6. Lucy Liyou – Practice
7. Reverend Dollars – PVNKHVUS
8. Body meat – Year of the Orc
9. Loraine James – Reflection
10. SPELLING – The spinning wheel

Top 10 songs:

1. Snake feet – “Community”
2. Shygirl – “BDE (ft. Slowthai)”
3. Yves Tumeur – “Jackie”
4. Laura Les – “Haunted”
5. Low – “Hey”
6. Burial – “Chems”
7. Backxwash – “I am buried here with my rings and my dresses on (ft. Ada Rook)”
8. L’Rain – “Kill Yourself”
9. Arca – “Queer (ft. Planningtorock)”
10. Pom Pom Squad – “Cheerleader”

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