By Colin McGowan | 17 July 2008
Listening to Small Vessel is a bit like watching a wounded bug crawl across a tiled bathroom floor: it stumbles haphazardly about, often frantically with frayed limbs flailing, headed to some non-specific place of relative shelter. And it’s quite obviously going to die soon, so one is left to ponder why it’s in such a massive hurry. A longish analogy for the existential dread that permeates Esau’s second Anticon release? Possibly, but stoned observations seem the only adequate descriptors of music that is so palpably wistful; through Sam Wisternoff’s bastard eyes, existence seems a drab dumpster, all unpleasantries and social disconnect tossed into a massive receptacle left untouched, cooking in the sun, leaving a worrying stench.
But let’s backtrack for a second, because perhaps the most accurate examination of Esau’s most recent output is viewed through the lens of his (still recent) Anticon debut. Wrong Faced Cat Feed Collapse (2007) manifested its insularity in subtler tones: lethargic trips to the kitchen as funeral marches. It seemed a product of growing sick of staring at the TV and realizing staring at the sofa is negligibly better, making it easy to picture Esau singing these slovenly ballads with head down crooning to carpet fibers. Which wasn’t dissatisfying in the least—I admired it thoroughly—but it was, in all of its soft-spoken somberness, dissatisfied: with its environment; with its own thoughts; with the inherent frustration of such dissatisfaction. Now in retrospect, Esau’s debut saw expurgations of dread like nocturnal emissions (embarrassment included) where Small Vessel is more of an ugly porno. And while the variation is welcome, there’s some vapidity in place of vulnerability, some bombastic irony displacing cleverness. This isn’t an unanticipated issue—surely something more grandiose is expected to be less intimate, but one is occasionally left pining for the bedroom folk of “Cat Track.”
Which isn’t to suggest that the Esau on display here is much removed from the one we were introduced to last year. Things are, in his words, “parallel, but worse,” which, surmising from “I Threw A Wobbly”‘s cascading guitars and vaguely triumphant horns, means jittery and frighteningly alive where once they were languid and depressing. Esau, with the exception of a couple plodding numbers, seems to have made a conscious effort to inject some element of propulsion into his music, nervous energy manifesting in off-kilter yelps and hurried enunciation. The music reflects this, as more shit is falling from the sky. Ramshackle guitars, dying drums, and insistent keys crop up from nowhere, building to sometimes dizzying climaxes. And when the music is spare, it’s still significantly sped up. “Human Annoyed” exemplifies such vertiginous affliction: “I don’t know why I’m saying stuff / One syllable a day’s enough.” Esau sings this hastily, fleeing from the next strum of his guitar (which in turn races along in pursuit of the track’s vocalist). At the track’s conclusion his voice catches slightly as he exclaims “I am a human!”
It’s nothing profound—there are better tracks here—but those two moments serve as a sufficient summation of the album as a manifestation of Esau’s progression as an artist and as a human being: intelligent enough to change aesthetics, too terrified to alter themes. Expanding upon that, Esau-as-artist understands that another collection of hesitant, droning depression would be a monotonous affair, so he chooses to venture outside—to the sea. This causes Esau-as-human-being to break out into an agoraphobia-induced, self-conscious panic attack where…well, things get rather predictable. In the end, our protagonist still dies—drowning this time—as his nervous shakes cause his tiny rowboat to capsize, which is why the final track soundtracks another morbid procession, as lonely, obvious confusion sets in; Esau repeats “I don’t know what happened” quietly to himself as his vocals are slowly overtaken by a wave of bleak distortion.
So: same morose dread as hysterical fit, housed in arrangements shifting at the shake on an etch-a-sketch. Sounds about right. And maybe I’m wrong. It’s entirely possible that using Wrong Faced Cat Feed Collapse as a reference point is ill-advised and amounts to nothing more than useless analogies like “exhausted sigh :: nervous shriek,” but there still seems an achingly obvious link between the two loosely-conceptual efforts. Maybe the only thread is apprehension, and it’s possible I’m ignoring that the thread on Small Vessel is weaving polka-dotted mittens, but this feels like false whimsy, masquerading by day but crying itself to sleep at night. Which is cool, because at least the funny costumes make the dysphoria more fun. Sort of.