Toward the Low Sun
(Drag City; 2012)
By Jessica Faulds | 22 March 2012
If you come to Dirty Three’s first album in six years hoping they haven’t changed much, you’ll have to skip the first couple tracks to get to the goods. There is plenty of artfully sad, roomily captured post-rock here once you get past those introductory pieces. However, if you’re interested in watching the newly-awakened band swerve from their usual approach like a wobbling bike gaining momentum, Toward the Low Sun‘s first two songs are the goods.
Here’s why: while none of the tracks on Toward the Low Sun abandon the band’s prevailing mood of suspicious hope, openers “Furnace Skies” and “Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone” reinvent the group’s usual song structure. Dirty Three have been around for nearly twenty years, and yet they’ve never much widened the palette of sounds available to them, nor often used more than a thin slice of the metronome’s dial. A great many of their songs could be described as follows: Warren Ellis’s distorted violin scratches a mournful refrain over guitarist Mick Turner’s gnarled minor chording, while Jim White’s fluttering and gap-toothed drum beats wash and rattle between them. Add to this the occasional blast of urgency and accompanying denouement, and you’ve covered much of their catalogue. And because the three are such skilled musicians, so attuned to the breath and heartbeat of each song, they’ve managed to keep this formula alive and compelling—which is good, because most of Toward the Low Sun follows in kind.
Except those first two tracks. “Furnace Skies” seems to observe as the three musicians purposely unlock from one another, walking side by side but purposely out of step. It is a chaotic and mesmerizing, a free-form blast of impressionistic angst, with repetitive bassy whorls, keening organ flourishes, and free-form (and totally awesome) drum mania. It is finger-painting done by professionals. The song is followed by its more tender sibling, “Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone,” still a meter-less smear of feeling, with heart-rending piano floating atop the jumble. These tracks derive their power from their inherent instability. They intrigue because the listener is made to grasp for the form behind the feeling—to figure out what, beyond a key signature, is holding these frayed strands together. Without melody, repetition, or a steady beat, how does a blast of snare drum relate to the pluck of a string? It’s a question free jazz started asking long ago, but in my experience, it’s never sounded so desperate and sad before. While Dirty Three are performing as a group, it is hard to ignore the way each musician seems to be playing alone.
Speaking of which: a thought experiment. You’ve heard it said that everybody dies alone. Well, what if we take that platitude and stretch its skin to fit everything, death to birth and everything in between? That is: everybody does pretty much everything alone. Sure, it’s kind of a downer, but if we can die alone surrounded by friends and family, surely we also eat alone (no one else can taste that hamburger), think alone, feel alone, sleep alone. There are activities that seem collaborative by nature: conversation, sex. But talking with so often turns out to be talking at. And what could be more solitary than sex—retracting into the senses, caving in on sensations no one else can feel?
Then there’s making music. Like language, music aims to be collaborative, an exchange. Harmony by definition involves being apart, together. Yet in “Furnace Skies” and “Sometimes I Forget,” Dirty Three take away the usual touchstones of collaborative songwriting like melody, harmony, and formulaic reaction, and instead take a bird’s eye view of solipsism. They trace the patterns made by entities that look mostly inward, revealing the beauty that arises when these solitary pieces brush against one another’s borders. It’s sad and angry and hopeful, and that’s what makes it so quintessential Dirty Three, even though it sounds like little else they’ve done.
Unfortunately, it also makes the rest of the album, when they fall back on their established patterns, a little less exhilarating than it might otherwise be. There are moments of fury on Toward the Low Sun, but none so furious as “Furnace Skies.” And there is nothing else so heartbreaking as the untethered sadness of “Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone.”
On the other hand, perhaps it was a wise idea to keep the exercises in entropy limited. After all, the more traditional Dirty Three songs on Toward the Low Sun are still more nuanced than most post-rock bands can handle, animals that breathe and sigh, not the mechanical ratcheting-up of volume and tension that we usually hear in instrumental rock. Dirty Three give the listener space. The sparsity of their arrangements allows textures—the shushing of brushes on the snare, the scratch of the violin, the edge of distortion on the guitar—to shine through. And while, like Cinder (2005), this album is more subdued than their early releases, tracks like “That was was” still give Ellis an opportunity to crank up the fuzz. Though they’ve quieted down some, Dirty Three still write exactly the sort of music that this photo suggests.
Matthew Fiander at Prefix Mag has likened Toward the Sun‘s opening to “shout[ing] to get attention.” And my rebuttal is: exactly. Dirty Three have been sneaking up for almost two decades. With Toward the Sun‘s introductory tracks, they announce themselves plainly. Just as last year’s instrumental breakout, Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Pt. 2 took a generation’s anxieties about annihilation/scorched earth/THE END and blew them at us out of a massive fucking horn, Dirty Three have taken loneliness and made it palpable, present, and terrifying. They have taken their sadness and hope, poured them into a giant pot, and stirred. And whether the results electrify or irritate comes down to a deeply personal confluence of factors, which each listener shares with no one, because, like everything else, it’s solitary. So skip those first two tracks if you want to. And enjoy your hamburger—no one else is going to do it for you.