I Love You
(Thrill Jockey; 2012)
By Conrad Amenta | 25 January 2012
Looking back at the history of a cold, cold genre, a good deal of ambient music depersonalizes spaces reserved by traditional songwriting for confession, ego, individualism—the personality writ large. Ambient, running right back to Eno’s airports, has evidently been more interested in exploring space or moments in time than a state of mind. From Hecker’s imaginary countries to Basinski’s degrading concepts of hegemony and power to the live exploration of large acoustic spaces like churches and flats: ambient is the noise of the historical, the macro, the architectural, the structural/technical, the disinterested and objective.
Which is why Jason Urick’s psychedelic brand of ambient, along with groups like Emeralds and White Rainbow, is distinct, and why I Love You is one of the most straightforward of this particular offshoot of a vibrant and diversifying genre. Vocals are twisted into wordless cooing, and their mantra-like repetitions cast them as one part spiritual ardor and another personal affinity. The sentiment—that there can be sentiment in ambient—is throughout. I Love You is that rare ambient album that sounds like a testament from the artist, a warmly written letter. Urick keeps up the deeply felt, emotional resonance explored on 2009’s Husbands, as if to be human is his niche.
Too bad, then, that I Love You is underdeveloped. At almost forty minutes there’s the implication of meatiness, but it’s difficult to understand why “Don’t Digital” needs to be almost eleven minutes, or the title track almost eight. These codas have few movements, shallow dynamics, and same sounding textures. While Urick infuses ambient with intimacy, he does little to convey narrative. I Love You is, fundamentally, a lovely arrangement of melodies, strung web-like and delicate about its space, but has no conflict or resolution. It’s as if the simplicity of Urick’s sentiment reflects the simplicity of his statement. Love, I guess, is not so complicated a thing to convey for some.
So this is not the authoritative statement, either from Urick or from the genre as a whole, of a newly personalized ambient. And here we stare at a key contradiction: in evolving the genre away from its traditionalist, objective perspectives, it becomes more idiosyncratic and personal, and thus less likely to be observed and recognized as a movement in the evolution of the genre. In Urick’s case, he provides snapshots of comfortable, confident moments, and so what distinguishes this trend is its inability or lack of interest in a broader appeal. One thinks that maybe ambient is better off sticking to the meta-technical exercises and metaphorical snipes at commercialism in which it’s been trucking since the mid-Century avant-classical of Pierre Boulez and Pierre Schaeffer. Maybe the vivacity of recent ambient has had more to do with the changes in historical context—think Basinski and 9/11. Anything so banal as the artist’s state of mind, and a less than tortured one at that, simply falls by the wayside, even if novel for the genre.
Ambient was already politically relevant and stunningly contemporary. It should just be itself, by which I mean it shouldn’t speak about the self at all.