Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads
(Thrill Jockey; 2012)
By Conrad Amenta | 20 February 2012
Of Dustin Wong’s previous album, Infinite Love (2010), I wrote that it was “a prickly, antiseptic listen. Surprising and interesting, to be sure, but hostile to expectations and ultimately as unsentimental about itself as it would be of any cultural artifact.” Believe it or not, I was trying to be diplomatic. In comparing Wong to Oval and on focusing on the types of discussions music like this makes possible, I was trying to define the audience who might most like “music like this.” Prickly and antiseptic listens are not for everyone, but my implication was that they are for some, and any discussion we have of them might be better served in that framework, rather in one that also considers, say, Fucked Up or Sleigh Bells. Wong lends himself to discussions of technique and aesthetic, and that hasn’t changed on the awkwardly titled and effortlessly listenable Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads. It’s just that everything within that formula has scaled exponentially, like he’s doubled an integer and changed his universe.
One suspects when they listen to an artist like Dustin Wong—which is to say, one who stubbornly adheres to what seems like a self-limiting formula, in this case solo instrumental guitar music and looping stations with only the occasional, sparse percussion—that they might someday, at the apex of their abilities, turn that limitation into a strength and make something for those outside of the narrow technical discussion. Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads is that record.
Make no mistake that if you are a person who thought, say, the National’s High Violet (2010) was a best-of album, you may find yourself wondering what such wonderful melodies, dexterous guitar playing, and seemingly endless inventiveness might sound like partnered with an equally skilled backing band. Wong has only achieved what seems like the best record of looping solo guitar sounds that he can make. It’s an undeniable achievement, but it will not bust down the doors to neighboring tastes and take prisoners of National fans. Maybe that doesn’t need saying (you see this is on Thrill Jockey, right?), but I think it’s important; when I say that Dustin Wong has made the best album of his life right here, I don’t mean that he’s made an album that will convert those without patience for those aforementioned self-limiting moves. He’s only gone and made something that might be best-in-genre.
These songs all seem to outgrow miniscule beginnings, each like an old argument to be elaborated upon. And each new movement Wong adds is surprising and fresh. What he’s capable of doing in the parameters of these songs, what he paints on the simple canvas of meter, rhythm, and tempo, gives off the impulse of discovery and inspiration. Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads often locks into its own Zen-like track of where each song can go, and patiently builds through moments (and through the track list itself) toward some sense of achieved potential. In other words, it sounds like there’s a lot happening here (though again: solo guitar) and it all comes together seamlessly and beautifully into something that might just be an important statement of what is possible when one person sits down and plays guitar. I’m resisting the urge to zoom in on any one track, as each contributes in some essential way to the dynamic ebb and aesthetic coalition of the album’s effervescent tonality.
It could be that Wong simply offers us a mellifluous arrangement of sounds, something pleasant to the ear rather than the dissonant or rudely experimental notions we’re used to when we hear “solo” and “looping.” But to dock points as a result would be to subscribe to a too-easy, two-tiered concept of difficulty and value. Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads is less difficult than Infinite Love, and in that subtle movement to the mean, combined with the emphasis on unbelievable skill and unbridled creativity, Wong has delivered what feels like a career statement. This record might find itself ignored for living in the space between what we expect from bands and what we expect from individuals—there’s no chanting backups, but neither will you see Wong’s face lit up in the dark by a laptop as mash-ups emerge from somewhere overhead. And in simultaneously capturing simplicity of concept and performativity, Wong is at the apex of his songwriting. This is not to be missed.