(Temprary Residence; 2007)

By Christopher Alexander | 2 February 2007

The accompanying bio for the new Eluvium record has a few things tos ay about having a few things to say. "[F]eelings of joy, hope, love, remorse and regret are unavoidable and are often obscured by language. Words will explain everything away, dragging those feelings back into their cerebral abyss." Sound unheard, this sends up a flare that the record is begging not to be discussed, which means analyzed, which means reviewed. One could choose to be cynical and note that this is, after all, "the departure album" (which means it has no guitars, a point we'll return to in a minute), and might be prone to more critical lambasting than before. If you talk about this record, it means you don't get it, which is proven by your belief that it's not very good.

For me, though, it's depressing: Matthew Cooper makes the kind of records that make me want to write reviews, precisely because they're difficult to capture in words. I don't mean this in the sense that his music is instrumental, as many writers who traffic in language find themselves mute in their absence. Instrumental as the music is, it's actually rather thin on stuffing. Melodies are fairly scant, rhythm non existent. A theme will be introduced, and if you left the room to return five minutes later it will basically remain unchanged. There is no sweeping crescendo, no sudden shifts in mood or dynamics. When it builds, it builds slowly, quietly, and then fades out just as mildly. There is, simply, not a lot to hang on to; and yet all four of his records leading to this one are beautiful. So it's a real challenge to put it into words, to talk back to a record that speaks to you so profoundly and yet says little, says next to nothing. The goal as a critic, then, is to make the reader feel, with the critique, an approximation of what the reviewer does.

The thing about this whole process is that, by allowing a record to conjure up whatever personal feelings you have about it, you place it squarely on your own turf. In a way it becomes easier to tackle, because you know the rules here. As criticism, though, it's indefensible: what is the reader and listener supposed to care or think about my memories and what does that have to say about the record? But here's the paradox: by associating this music so strongly with solipsistic mood and feeling, you're actually right where Cooper wants you; you've reached that point where the record draws you in, and it has its way with you. You're helpless before it. You're on the record's turf, in fact.

I suppose that's every musician's goal, even if Cooper explicitly told me that the point of Talk Amongst the Trees (2005) was a "total desertion from everything we know." But on Copia the musician stages a kind of desertion himself: He puts down the guitar. This isn't new territory for him, though: An Accidental Memory in Case of Death, released in 2004, was composed and recorded on just a piano. It was starkly minimalist. Copia, however, isn't minimal at all. Every track is thick with layers of gauzy synth strings, piano and pipe organ. The pacing is laborious, compositions swell as the motif in each song recycles and whirrs. In other words, it sounds exactly like Eluvium, only with an organ and not a guitar, and with more overt classical aspirations than before.

There are two problems with this approach. The first, nsurprisingly, has to do with his choice of instrumentation. It's not that they don't suit the material; the material is such that everything suits it. But this is the first time that it seems Cooper is being grandiose, and that his ideas are outstripped their conduit. Part of what made Trees so great was that, for all its lush textures, it was conceivable that this was the work of one man, either multi-tracking himself or making good use of a loop station (mostly the latter). Here, he flirts dangerously close to Pure Moods territory, imputing lush string sections -- or, more accurately, a completely unnatural synthesizer setting -- onto allegro piano figures. It has the effect of signifying beauty rather than being beautiful, and it derails some of the better songs here, such as the finale, "Repose in Blue."

The second problem may seem contradictory, but I don't think it is: Cooper doesn't take enough chances on Copia. Clearly, he recognizes that he needs to make a break with his past work. But he's made the mistake of a cosmetic change for a substantive one: nothing here would be out of place on previous albums, save for perhaps the set's two genuine misfires. "Radio Ballet" and "Prelude for Time Feelers" are classically influenced, but they're clumsy, the left-hand arpeggios off-setting the languorous feel of the rest of the record. Cooper has mastered the emotional properties of his music better than any working musician I know of; it would be exciting if he could transfer that into electronic music, say, or if he composed pieces for a quartet of musicians. An album with lush organs and glacial tempos only confirms what we already know.

All of that been said: this is still Eluvium, and it does still deliver the goods. The album's two long pieces, "Repose in Blue" and "Indoor Swimming at the Space Station," are early highlights for the year. "Indoor Swimming" approaches something like whimsy, the guiding piano figure instead introduced after a wash of synths. "Ostinato" recalls the majesty of the Trees track "Taken," proof that Cooper can make his organ sound like a guitar, and pluck the listener from his spot in front of a computer, underneath his headphones into any grassy knoll from his childhood. It remains on Cooper's turf, and as such it's a work that gets as much from you as you do from it. Still, one has to wonder if he himself is willing to go to a place that could surprise him. Different instrumentation on Copia suggests that he might, but the result is a step too tentative to judge.