The Books

The Way Out

(Temporary Residence; 2010)

By Dom Sinacola | 8 August 2010

The Way Out is less a direction or a sign, more like a big joke. Q: How does one find his or her way into the Books? A: The Way Out. It’s both set-up and pay-off; it’s also not very funny—not, at least, road-crossing-fowl funny, which, if you haven’t heard, is always funny. Sometimes The Way Out can carry a chuckle, like when we stumble upon a bunch of pre-pubescents threatening one another with genital mutilation. But mostly what the Books do isn’t funny ha-ha; what they do do (…pause…) is what they’ve been doing since Thought For Food (2002) defined the band’s sound: gathering the ephemera, afterbirth, and diarrhea of the known aural-verse and repurposing it all, with uncalled-for care, into something digestible.

What the Books do is comedy because what they do isn’t tragedy. In the end, a Books album is about communion and reconciliation—not a testament to divorcing these soundbytes from their original contexts but to breathing new life into them, forgiving their past transgressions with inconsequentiality and newly anointing them, making them consequential.

Once I called this love, called it “the sound of sampling as moral responsibility.” (I even compared the Books, a duo comprised of NYC’s Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto, to Jesus; Knock knock. Who’s there? Blasphemy.) None of this, as of their fourth LP and first release away from Tomlab, do I rescind: The Way Out is as empathic a document as anything else the band’s released, and they take to their found funk, chamber pop, pedantic hip-hop, and tongue-in-cheek geekdom with as much zeal as they’ve ever shown. Except The Way Out demonstrates a new touch, tactile-wise: Let’s call this grace—not divine, but borne from the goosepimply sensation of fingers trained more thoroughly than yours or mine brushing against your skin or mine. Let’s call this the visceral understanding of precision.

Because The Way Out is easily the Books at their most focused. Songs exist here, four-minute wonders with beginnings, middles, and ends, with arcs and tension and release and lots and lots of vocals. Gone are the heedless clusterfucks, the dead-ends, the plodding ambience, the aimlessness; sound installations are replaced with melody, spontaneity with order, admiration with participation. And while “Beautiful People” or “All I Need Is A Wall” are still beset by fireballs of recycled sonic garbage and indulgent instrumentation, guitarist Zammuto’s voice serves as their anchor, something the listener can grip when the album’s shifting contexts and oneiric sense of place are too disorienting.

Have no fear: this music is still stuffed. Like any Books album, The Way Out is best embraced as a headphones record, but it could also work at a party, on a morning commute, over dinner, under a squeaking bedframe—it’s the poppiest ambient album I’ve heard in some time, surprisingly accessible given the band’s track record. Look to “A Cold Freezin’ Night,” sample-heavy and unnerved by horn blats, but parsable, as much about what the toddlers are saying as how they’re saying it—which is what context is about anyway, right? “A Cold Freezin’ Night” must be what the Books have always wanted to make—precise pop—but until now they’ve never been able to bridge the gap between album and art piece. Again: Q: Where does one start with the Books? A: On the Way Out.

This also means the Books are trying on genres like tuxedo-decaled tee-shirts: singer-songwriter (“Free Translator”); Ratatat…-ish duo (“Chain of Missing Links”); what I can only describe as literal hip hop (“The Story of Hip-Hop”). They hide nothing and reject even less; “A Wonderful Phrase from Gandhi” is what it claims to be: a reassuring clip of Gandhi describing an unknowable, possibly terrifying force binding us and everything together underneath the ostensibly mutable, sentimental reality we know. With this, Mines, and Str8 Killa all coming out at the same time, the bowels of Summer 2010’re mounting to be filled by propulsive, boisterous music dense with the browns and sickly greens of deeply sad, sometimes sinister natures.

Like Gibbs screaming about “screaming, ‘Fuck the world’” with two and-the-horse-you-rode-in-on fingers up, Zammuto sings, in next track “We Bought the Flood,” “All of this will disappear / As quickly as it came / The fire and the rain / Oxidize and rearrange.” We’re confronted with a talented artist confronting his own ars musica, laying it bare so we can understand it as he does. “Focus on the pain / Focus on the way to get out”—phrased like a koan, the titular punchline is tattooed on the heart of the album. Unfortunately, it’s tattooed with barbed wire and ink from a Bic pen found in the hatch-topped desk of some long-abandoned elementary schoolhouse. Any ten-year-old knows those pens are shit—just as any adult knows he or she will die and life is pain.

Not that the Books are suggesting suicide; there is, as in every Books album, too much love here to prescribe to such an exit strategy. Perhaps what they’re referring to when they speak or sing of (or regurgitate the words of the dead about) pain is the overwhelming incomprehensibility of change. Life is pain because nothing lasts, they seem to be telling us—or, almost nothing. Ghandi’s still around in some form; the dead fish of “A Dead Fish Gains the Power of Observation” knew this, even if the dead fish was surviving only through words coming to grips with his own inability to survive. I’d like to see some statistics regarding those who are alive versus those dead within the folds of any Books album; I doubt I’ll ever get them. Origins dead or alive, the voices persist; the music persists; the arresting tug at the core of my gut is still very real when “The Story of Hip-Hop” slides almost indiscernibly into the gotta-be ancient troubadour creak of “Last Translator.” The song is simply gorgeous, especially when songs by this band are so rarely simply anything, a trumpet accompanying Zammuto’s string of nonsensical images as if it’s catching glimpses of the rest of the song from miles away. Whoever it is, whoever the Books think of him as, this nobody providing the three-word, rising chorus, he sounds old, wizened, and immortal, this guy singing, “And I see.”

I do see…maybe. I see something past everything I always see, and I can’t see its end. It’s what the Books allow me: a warranty, a shoulder, a pot to piss in. At the beginning of the album, someone quietly drawls, “Whoever you think you presently are, thank you.” It’s a passive statement amidst so much aggression: thank you, listeners, for your imagination. Thank you, because imagination is required to make it through the rest of this album. A massive, boundless, absorbent imagination is required to let all this noise—this memory and castaway sound—wash over you without losing a sense of continuity, a sense of self, at its hilt. Such an imagination is required to, just as the album’s bookends imply, relax: to accept the inevitability of all things, which is that all things will end, things both good and bad and gray, oxidizing and rearranging until they are no longer they. That’s the way out of…well, what exactly? At the end of the album, “Group Autogenics II” farewells with the sweetest voice the record’s offered yet: “And you’re becoming the world, and everyone in it.” The Way Out is a joke because it isn’t a way out—there is no way out of the world, no way to escape the refuse of everyone in it. There is only acceptance, and with that a window, not out, but to somewhere unimaginably different.