Malfangled Dog Records, 2012, DD album, 44m 33s
This is a recording with a self-consciously ‘lo-fi’ sound, but there’s a whole sonic ideology wrapped up in an idea like ‘lo-fi’. What does it even mean? Low fidelity; and fidelity means truth. I would guess though, that it’s a primary concern of Olds Sleeper’s to get the truth quotient of his music right up there near the top of the dial. The whole duality of high- and low-fidelity has its roots in the early days of recording, a time when verisimilitude, a resemblance to actuality, was a technical challenge to be met, like pulling focus on a cine camera. ‘Fidelity’ was a question of making a recording sound recognisably like some musicians playing their instruments, and to give a recording the slightest degree of presence, of the sense that they occupied the same space as the listener, was a major technical achievement. From these beginnings, recording orthodoxy has continued to push further and further in the pursuit of clarity, developing various technologies along the way, and has somehow lost touch with the fact that it’s all artifice. A modern recording, in which a skilled engineer uses all their wiles to present an ensemble with the maximum clarity and separation, sounds no more like a group of musicians in acoustic performance than does the result you’ll achieve if you record it onto the average phone. A recording that dissembles its artificiality may well be ‘high-fidelity’, but it’s decidedly low on truth. Olds Sleeper understands this, and New Year’s Poem is an album that seeks truth in the gritty materiality of the circuits (or algorithms) through which its sounds have so evidently travelled.
This album is constructed from musical materials that draw on Americana and the blues, but it’s the latter element that most informs its wounded howl and relentless stomp. The distorted snarl of Sleeper’s acoustic guitar resembles the almost incidental distortions of early electric blues players’ quest for volume (or the overdriven thumb pianos of Congotronics); he has a way of worrying at a simple rhythmic figure that recalls the stomp and drive of blues; and this grim, dogged articulation of the barest of rhythmic motifs recalls that darkest of all dance music practitioners, John Lee Hooker. Sleeper commands the imaginary space of this performance with all the mastery and charisma required of those (mostly forgotten) solo acoustic guitarists that used to rock a noisy honky-tonk unassisted. New Year’s Poem consists of songs performed, very simply, with an acoustic guitar and a voice. There’s some overdubbing of vocal and guitar tracks, some basic drum beats, a touch of banjo, but it’s basically pretty sparse. However, there is a physicality to it, a love of the sonically aleatory, a grain to the album’s voice that makes it sound very full indeed: it opens with a huge blast of filthy distorted noise, staking out its territory from the start. Thereafter the production varies between the sound of the shittiest 1980s cassette recorder, with every part of the arrangement brutally, harshly overdriven, and a very present, intimate sound, though still with plenty of hiss and grit. On plainspoken (Sleeper’s previous release) there was a dusty feel, but the dust that was floating in the air of that record seems to have all accumulated on the stylus for this one.
If you grow up somewhere flat, as I did, you get used to not seeing very far: people think of flatlands as vast, wide open spaces, but the fact is that unless you climb a tree, the lack of vertical relief keeps the landscape hidden. At the same time, the sky expands, unobstructed by any wanton humps or hillocks, until it seems to fill the universe. Olds Sleeper found some words for that feeling that simply take my breath away, so accurate are they, and so evocative of the claustrophobia of open country: ‘out here where the sky/ it crushes the earth/ without a sound’. ‘bigsky/ flatland’, the song from which they come, is a complex and disturbing depiction of rural poverty, in which the symbolic and the material become ineluctably entangled, and emptiness becomes a physical presence. In ‘it ain’t my home’ the narrator repeatedly muses ‘I don’t even know why I live/ around here any more’; ‘could have sworn I smelled her perfume/ the other night in the liquor store’ he laments, regretting what’s lost, but recognising it only in the generic sensation of a mass produced cosmetic, and leaving the listener to wonder where there is to live except ‘around here’. ‘born to lose’, whose refrain is a plaint to a life without good fortune, is no brighter… The blues has blessed American popular music with a facility to celebrate the darkest shades of experience, and there is something supremely atmospheric and charismatic about the songs on New Year’s Poem, like rural film noir. The mood of the album unexpectedly lifts in its last quarter, however, and Sleeper’s narrator reveals his source of solace; a good woman, who dances to James Brown records naked on the lawn, and cooks him breakfast (the latter in two songs, so this must be important…) And that to me is the central theme of this album: the desperate search for a strong sexual and emotional bond, as the only way to stave off the terrors of a vast, cold, uncaring universe. The world of these songs is a bleak one, a faithless one where God’s absence is immanent, full of missed connections and lost opportunities; the only thing there is to cling onto is a warm body. ‘I’ll be lying on the floor/ holding onto your legs’, Sleeper sings to one of his breakfast makers in ‘bad dog’.
The point of going ‘lo-fi’, and highlighting the artificiality of a recording, is not, of course, to replace ‘a lie’ with ‘the truth’. What the strategy employed on this record articulates is that truth is contingent, a negotiable value that comes in all shapes and sizes. I get the impression that Olds Sleeper’s kind of truth is the truth of experience; the physically apprehended truth of the body; the truth of sincerity, rather than the truth of argument. The truth of ramming a guitar’s signal through a cable so hard that it starts to bleed, rather than the truth of a ‘fidelity’ that denies the cable even exists; because it’s the ‘cable’, the mediating factors, that keep the lost and wounded characters in these songs in isolation from one another, even as it offers their only hope of connection, and the distortion we hear so liberally applied throughout New Year’s Poem is the ragged edge of their pain. I have rarely heard music that so economically and powerfully enacts a view of the world, and though it is a bleak one, it is not an unrealistic one, and it is not without its compensations. I’m raising a toast to the man who made these songs, although unlike one of his characters, I won’t be drinking it from shotgun shells.