Since it is a lovely warm day, the flowers are out and I have been watching baby birds taking their first flights in my garden today, so obviously I’ve reached for something dark, unsettling and other-y to listen to Slint Spiderland.
Goodnight, my love
Remember me as you fall to sleep.
Fill your pockets with the dust and the memory,
That rises from the shoes on my feet. (Washer)
This dark, dark bullet from 1991 has a stature that belies any sales figures it had, for a while in the mid to late 90’s ‘Slint bands’ was a recognized genre in certain post-hardcore/post rock circles for all the outfits who had been so influenced by the band. I bought it on my 28th birthday, intrigued by Spiderland‘s rep and the striking cover image, taken by Will Oldham, of the band swimming in a disused quarry – there was just something about those slightly maniacal floating heads … I really didn’t know what to make of the album though, played it a few times and didn’t come back to it for 6 or 7 years, until I played it one late, dark night of the soul, upset about something or other trivial and it just hit me like a hammer.
I will say it straight out Spiderland is a damnably odd LP. The title came from a description of the music as ‘spidery’ and that works, because it is. At times the music is almost non-existent, at others it blazes and sears but this isn’t the same LOUD/quiet dynamic that grunge purloined off the Pixies and never gave back, this is jazzier and odder. Brian McMahan’s and Britt Walford’s vocals are often spoken, mumbled so that listening to the tracks can feel like overhearing shreds of a conversation, or eavesdropping on someone’s interior monologue, often when you’d rather not.
Opener ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ is apparently about spending a day with a carnival fortune-teller, I had to read that yesterday because in all my years of listening to it I’d never got that. It starts quietly, uneasily and builds to a squall of noise, before subsiding again. David Pajo is a brilliant guitarist, but we already knew that* and he really shows it here, providing plenty of low melody and an angular mid-section** where he rocks out, without remotely rocking out (he added, mysteriously). ‘Nosferatu Man’, as well as being a great title, takes us into separate, albeit a bit louder territory. What strikes me about this track and Slint in general is the way that the drums follow the melody, usually the guitar, rather than vice-versa which is an unusual effect and again there are some great, almost painful guitar parts – the structure steers parallel to metal here, but is always too slanted and skewed to rock out.
Don stepped outside
It felt good to be alone
He wished he was drunk
He thought about something he said
And how stupid it had sounded
He should forget about it
He decided to piss, but he couldn’t
(A plane passes silently overhead) (Don, Aman)
My two favourite tracks on Spiderland sit either side of the great side divide, ‘Don, Aman’ and ‘Washer’. The former is the tale of a man stepping outside at a party and the latter I read as advice not to mourn a departed (dead?) someone. There is a palpable self-loathing, almost malice in the former track which sports some jagged guitaring and more deadpan talkie vocals, whereas there is some real emotional heft behind ‘Washer’, that sustains it for almost 9 minutes. I don’t know how much of a myth it is but at least two of the band are supposed to have been institutionalized during/in the aftermath of the recording of Spiderland and it does feel like an LP that is right out there on the edge of normality, peering over into the Slough of Despond.
Let me in, the voice cried softly,
from outside the wooden door.
Scattered remnants of the ship could be seen in the distance,
Blood stained the icy wall of the shore (Good Morning, Captain)
Strangely, one of the more emotional tracks is the instrumental track ‘For Dinner …’ which is a brooding, intimate affair that does the whole build-and-release thing spectacularly well. It shows off both the subtle drumming of Britt Walford and the production of Brian Paulson particularly well; the recording is spookily well done, every last nuance of sound harvested for our delectation no matter how chilling and slight some of it is. The big send-off here is ‘Good Morning, Captain’ a take on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s^ Rime of the Ancient Mariner and it is fittingly epic and discordant, evoking yelled despair after a whispered unease^^. The slightly wonky rhythm and the alternatively delicate then slashing guitars all serve to push us up the mountain trail marked ‘Epic’.
The irony is that by the time this incredibly influential LP was released, the band had split up and nobody much was bothered about the release, until word of mouth started to garner Spiderland a real following. This music didn’t come out of nowhere, there are (very) distant touches from Neil Young^* and Led Zeppelin buried deep in here, but by consciously rejecting all the usual forms and clichés Slint took a step towards creating something new and lasting, something that pierces your skin and draws blood; a slinter?
The girl falters as she steps down from the platform.
She clutches her stomach, and begins to heave.
The ticket-taker smiles, and the last car is ready.
Who told you that you could leave? (Breadcrumb Trail)
P.S: I was always going to love a band who printed the message: “this recording is meant to be listened to on vinyl” on some CD copies of Spiderland.
*Tortoise, Papa M, Zwan, Royal Trux …
**very unlike my own.
^as opposed to Iron Maiden’s.
^^Brian MacMahan puked whilst recording the final screamed verse apparently, that’s dedication to art for you – I’ve puked until I’ve screamed but, as of the time of writing, have never screamed until I’ve puked.
^*particularly in the vocals on ‘Washer’.