Vignetting the Compost

(Mush; 2009)

By Conrad Amenta | 26 February 2009

One weird byproduct of the futurism anal aesthetes have imposed on electronic music is electronic music’s polar response. Electronic music is electronic music, whatever the hell that means, but it’s also Prodigy, and then Moby, being the Next Big Thing after grunge that the mainstream took away from true music lovers (read: everyone with an opinion); it’s Richard James being a wickedly enjoyable asshole and buying a tank with your dough, equivalent to rap star exhibit A through Z buying every colour of Hummer; it was insular head music for the self-style pretentious, evidence of the esoteric fringes in one’s personal taste; it’s guy from Junior Boys singing shit like “Work it, baby, work it” over B-grade chill out tracks; and, like the maudlin wistfulness to which Boards of Canada and the Books and Bibio occasionally revert and thus typify, electronic music was, is, and seems will forever be that paradoxically maddening space in which it retrogrades simplified, nostalgic yearning for childhood, for tactile music, for crackly old-sounding samples.

“All this old shit means precisely nothing” is a thought that isn’t completely fair or accurate, nor did it occur to me from out of nowhere. Stephen Wilkinson’s achingly lovely and yet samey debut as Bibio, Fi (2004), was interesting in the way Sigur Rós was interesting: alien sounding because it tweaked the recognizable, unsettled the slow build of melody, and made music we’d all heard a million times before seem strange and new—the way wiser horror movies simply make a child act like an adult and we’re all creeped the fuck out. Where Sigur Rós’ trick is to act elf-like and inhabit the space recently vacated by Mogwai, Bibio’s MO is to take faraway sounding, folk-like recordings and plop them still further in the mix, subject them to cyclical arrangements, and sound pleasant. Bibio is electronic music exiling itself at the furthest point from what the mainstream wants it to be, and thus is as extreme and overcompensating as its foil.

And, several listens later, all that old stuff still doesn’t seem to signify anything. It occurs to me that the problem with nostalgia is how easily and immediately it’s problematized, made tissue paper thin by even the more complex experience of listening to it. Bibio seems to have moved even farther away from Fi, which at least had the good sense of make its holistic retelling spooky, alien, and ethereal in addition to romantic. The cleverly titled Vignetting the Compost sometimes hints at the same, as in the last few seconds of “Under the Pier,” but it quickly dissolves into the sunny, blissed-out “Weekend Wildfire,” and is preceded by the acoustic retreads “Mr. and Mrs. Compost” and “Dopplerton,” which simplistically equate rustic plinking with the album’s insistence that there is no seedy underbelly to something committed in, or to, the past.

It’s a wonderful fantasy, and one wonders if we’re not better off—that this isn’t the damned point of art, even—being utilitarian and wishing history into some strange, glossed-over space, the only prerequisite of which is that it be old sounding. Weird as it sounds, I’d place Bibio somewhere near Girl Talk in the web of electronic music’s fleetingly likeable castabouts. Though their goals are entirely different, they’re rearranging the detritus at another person’s yard sale; Bibio simply eschew the kitsch of one generation for that of another. Girl Talk is entirely as disposable as the passing moment of homesick recognition one feels listening to the music from which his albums are derived, but at least they’re also rooted in the consumer impulse to identify with, consume, and then instantly dispose of the mainstream. Wilkinson is setting his sights somewhere more halcyon, a self-legitimizing narrative about nicey, prettier times that keeps its hands clean because it’s just that: a fiction. A folk tale. A dream never had, but thought up and written about upon waking.