With songs that are dreamy, anxious, bombastic but yet fragile Portland’s beloved 11-piece collective, Typhoon, are everything I love about America’s art rock scene right now. They are Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear and Portugal The Man all at once. I just wish they’d choose something a bit more upbeat to write about.
“Listen, of all the things you’re about to lose/This will be the most painful,” declares vocalist Kyle Morton on the quiet storm, Wake, which opens this album, “This is not your loss, this is your offering”. You must ask if that’s a funeral party or a new dawning he’s referring to. In some ways, it is the start and the end of it all. “Wake and I have been reborn/The tide concedes that homely shore and I am benighted/All my lines unlearned/Cry out, “Will God, or somebody, please turn the light on?”” Musically this song barely breaths, hovering like gossamer above the lowest decibel before exploding at the ending into a rallying cry – a call to arms. Or maybe a confessional invite.
The song is also the disclaimer for the album’s concept which centres on a fictional character who is slowly losing his memory. This is something I’ve experienced very recently, as I watched a bright and vibrant soul wither to a dried husk as a result of Alzheimer’s. For me, this was a painful listen and all too real at times. How could he know what I’d gone through?
Maybe Morton was speaking for himself or maybe he was channelling his influences like David Lynch, Federici Fellini and Christopher Nolan, providing a slightly surrealist mirror of all the sensations of fear, anxiety and claustrophobia. Over and over the album asks questions about what happens to a person when they lose their sense of self and history. ‘Do we cease to be?’ On Darker this is harshly revealed: “I don’t wanna live with the kinds of trouble I keep finding myself in/Mirror to my left, and mirror to my right/A void stretching out on either side/Is it your face or mine?”
It’s a deeply moving and challenging album and ambitious, not shying away from contemporary life and the feelings of fear and anxiety. To navigate the album, one requires some inside knowledge: It is divided into four movements (Floodplains, Flood, Reckoning, and Afterparty) to represent the mental phases the main character goes through where he first realizes that he’s going downhill, then the struggle to hold on, the chaos of the new reality, and finally, the acceptance before he succumbs to this horrific fate. In one sense this is pure opera, theatre macabre and reality, all too real. I saw this happen with my own eyes. This is how it happens. Anyone who’s experienced people with mental illnesses like dementia or Alzheimer’s will tell you.
This is a literate and wordy album and you will need liner notes (which are, fortunately, available on the web). It also helps if you’re well read – unlike my self – or at least can access Google. It is packed with ancient and modern, and with tracks titled Empiricist and Chiaroscuro, as well as references to writers as varied as Dante and Samuel Beckett it’s a complex and often bleak listen. At times the general themes and narratives can be emotionally cold at times. The quiet, clinical track Chiaroscuro, in particular sounds like a Bon Iver or Sufjan Stevens song, particularly from the recent album about his parents. The lyrics give us a stark kitchen sink drama of decline: “Car keys clatter on the tile/You lunge for the phone/Your voice like a frightened child/“He’s had some kinda stroke!”/Be calm my dear/I’m just moving a little slow/As it all approaches absolute zero.”
The story continues on Darker, which whilst more upbeat is far more sinister, too. The lines
How long can I keep this tired act together?/It’s a short ambulance ride and then the waiting room forever/So tell me how do I make the right move now?/Prepare me for the moment when my mind goes out/I am trying hard to follow the sound.”
You cannot fault the undoubted ambition and detailing that intertwines. From a compositional point of view, this one has a fierce collection of light and shade, ebb and flow, release and hold. One example is the fractured approach taken on Rorschach which samples not only indie rock, demented songwriting in the verses and the emotional vocal manipulations employed by Sufjan Stevens or Bon Iver. Also, there is a pristine violin, distorted interruptions and some semi-apocalyptic imagery. It reminded me of songs like Funeral by Arcade Fire and earlier material from Burial.
While that was one of the more accessible songs Offerings is not always so easy. At times it becomes overwhelmingly claustrophobic. Unusual shows us that even when pitched in surrealistic clothing the position of losing your mind is far from extraordinary: “In his brave new world/It’s gonna take some getting used to/The cretin’s lips are curled/He swings a wrecking ball around the courtroom/And I’d say, “Just wait it out”/But I’m afraid it’s just a desert beyond the sand dune”. To make matters worse Morton turns the lost imagery into a courtroom drama, as if mental decay is a felony of some sort: “It’s unusual/Yeah I know I must be losing my mind/Yeah it’s cruel and unusual/Can’t tell the punishment apart from the crime/You’re running out of time”. The song finishes with a clutter of voices and wormhole distortions spiralling into an empty void as if our hero is being sucked up into a wasteland on nothing.
By the end of this record, which Morton calls the ‘fourth movement’, the poor fellow has been beaten into acceptance, leaving behind exhausted, ruined listeners. Sleep, appropriately named is the final nightmare: “It’s a mixed bag for the living/Full of sorrow, full of grief/And the moment stretches on…Like a self-enclosed short circuit goes around forever until it’s gone”.
The hidden track that bookends Sleep (appropriately labelled Afterparty) brings us back to the wake that opened it all. Staring off like a sing-a-long at an Irish pub wake – boisterous and lustrous before developing into the finale of some imaginary Broadway musical we finally get that release all souls have when they reach Heaven, and all is restored (we hope). So, goes the chorus: “Out of time and out of place/From the mortal coil deliver/To the great expanse found in the space/Between celestial fissures/Where the sick or soft of mind/Where they’re hardly disfigured/You shed your clothes, you jump the boat/And join us in the river”.
This might be a sprawling, ambitious work but it offers a lot. I also came out of it in a fevered panic of doom. Having lived with a man who has gone through this for real, it was achingly real and devastating. I hate this band for creating this wonderful awful truth. Every line and every emotion on this rollercoaster ride seemed so real. No one else, even Trent Reznor, could make this scalpel cut so close.