(Anticon; 2013)

By Corey Beasley | 22 July 2013

In Seneca’s version of her story, Oedipus’s Phaedra—wife to archetypal anti-hero dude, Theseus, and stepmother to his pretty-boy bastard, Hippolytus—has a problem. She’s in love with the kid, in spite of his solid track record of flagrant misogyny, and, you know, her own marriage to his dad. I won’t ruin the play if you haven’t rushed out to your local sunken gardens to watch a performance, but I’ll say one thing about Phaedra: she knows her lust and infatuation have gotten the best of her, that they’re overpowering her capacity for reason, and that no good can possibly come of wanting to…over-familiarize herself with her own stepson. So, she makes what she thinks would be the only honorable choice available to someone irrevocably conquered by emotion: she decides to kill herself.

“Phaedra,” one of the best songs on Baths’s brooding Obsidian, sees Will Wiesenfeld identifying with her dilemma. “The thought of mortality dormant in me,” he sings, aware the death wish is resting somewhere in him and could rattle itself awake at the slightest alarm. Later, as the beat fades in a brief respite from the track’s battery of clattering floor toms, he dreams of death as a comfort, a nothingness of absolute calm: “I let my vision vignette and eye / Old handsome death / His quiet house, where’s nothing left / To see: / No God / No dawn / No need.” And in that moment, he empathizes with Phaedra’s tragedy completely: when heart cooks brain, death can seem like the only sea cold enough to offer any sense of release. This suicidal ideation soaks Obsidian to the bone. The album seethes with a tidal pull of the ugliest feelings in the human repertoire: violent impulses, betrayal, despair, sociopathic sexual aggression, boiling anger.

It’s a record born of some serious—and possibly dangerous—introspection, the kind that comes after the type of hurt that defines entire chapters of your life. And so “Phaedra” doesn’t point its knives at Wiesenfeld alone. Someone else’s icy carelessness has left him reeling, and he puts it plainly enough, singing, “Phaedra, it is you that made me / Want to kill myself… / Phaedra, this apathy.” This emotional directness shocks even more when you consider Wiesenfeld’s first album as Baths, 2010’s Cerulean. One of that year’s best in a quiet way, treading the line between a beats record and a bedroom pop wonder, it was the sort of LP that nestled its way slowly into your regular rotation. Most of Cerulean’s unobtrusive quality came from Wiesenfeld’s refusal to put himself at the center of his songs at the expense of his hypnotic, engaging production. But when he did, we’d get a song like “You’re My Excuse to Travel,” an affectingly earnest love song buoyed along by a woozy piano-led beat and Wiesenfeld’s creaky falsetto. Tracks like that one hinted at Baths’s potential to write a more straightforward pop record, one where his lyrics and vocals would hold as much water (sorry) as his talent behind the sequencer.

Still, even the promise of Cerulean’s best songs couldn’t predict a record like Obsidian. Desperate, aggressive, self-flagellating—if Cerulean resembled its titular crystal-clear summer skies, Obsidian is a hulking mass of darkness almost to the point of pitch. Fortunately, though his songwriting has taken a markedly different turn, Wiesenfeld hasn’t lost his knack for creating beats at once catchy and intricate enough to warrant piping his music through headphones at least as often as blasting it through a subwoofer. Opener “Worsening” lays a stuttering brace of percussion underneath clean keys and a gorgeously weightless vocal hook; the contrast between the percussion and the melody is a knockout combination, something akin to capturing on tape the way anxiety can thread its way through depression to make a new, suffocating, seemingly impenetrable cloth. Midway through the song, when Wiesenfeld cuts through the emotional dissonance with the starkness of a question like “Where is God / When you hate him most?”, his desperate clarity rings out like a bell.

Obsidian is full of moments like that, bits highlighting Wiesenfeld’s willingness to put it all out there—whether an unapologetically high-minded question or a base admission guaranteed to color him in harsh, unflattering light—in the service of emotionally engaging his listeners to the same degree he physically engages them with glitched-out beats and sugary melodies. The record’s investigation of sex gives a particularly unflinching example of this refusal to self-censor. “Incompatible” pairs the story of its speaker’s first experience with a live-in boyfriend with a lurching soundscape equal parts queasy and beautiful. “First boyfriend,” Wiesenfeld croons in his lower register, “You live in my house / And we share a toilet seat,” an image that de-romanticizes the idea of a lover-as-roommate in as plain a fashion as possible. Over intestinal synth burps and insect-like percussive clicks, he goes on, “Scared of how little I care for you… / And I’m not the least bit drawn to your heat / On the nights you roll over and introduce yourself / Nurse this erection back to full health— / I am elsewhere.” It’s a sociopathic coldness, more chilling for its self-aware quality, the implication that the speaker is sexually feasting on his partner even as he knows full well he’s also emotionally exploiting him.

Elsewhere, on “No Eyes,” Wiesenfeld offers Obsidian’s closest thing to a 4/4 crossover hit but does so with the album’s most dead-eyed stare. Pure pop uplift in its insistent build, thudding beat, and staccato synths, “No Eyes” serves up a manifesto of sexual callousness: “And it is not a matter of if you mean it / But it is only a matter of come and fuck me / And it is not a matter of if you love me / But it is only a matter of my fix.” Again, it’s Wiesenfeld’s acknowledgement of his partner’s love even in the midst of this sexual predation that makes the song so morally repellent. When he drops his standard falsetto for a primal scream in the song’s final seconds, you feel like his lover finally catching sight of the raw ugliness behind the voice’s tender, fragile façade. It would be tough listening if the song itself weren’t so completely delectable. That’s the tack for Obsidian as a whole, too. Yes, we shouldn’t assume Wiesenfeld’s lyrics are autobiographical, or, if they are, that he’s the emotional vampire lurching through these songs and not its victim. But whatever the story behind the record and his place within it, Obsidian makes for a totally immersive plunge and, depending on where you are with your own head when you listen, either a welcome gulp of fresh air in recognition or a chance to hold your breath and dive deeply into life’s darker materials until you have to come back up again.