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20 Years On: The Curiously Ignored Lyricism In Slint's Spiderland
Joe Kennedy , April 28th, 2011 03:12

Two decades after the release of Spiderland, Joe Kennedy argues that those who waffle endlessly about post rock have made a mistake in ignoring "a lyrical blueprint which places Gothic imagery at the service of modernist ambiguity"

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Slint's breakthrough record was released in April 1999. Constructed around sombre, geologically-paced drums and guitar, and fortified texturally with little more than subdued samples clipped from sports commentaries and TV interviews, Come on Die Young made the Kentucky quartet into a byword for the deconstructive turn occasioned by pre-millenial art rock. That summer, barely a week passed without some up-and-coming set of educated instrumentalists tipping a hat to the group's work in the NME; indeed, it became unsurprising to catch sight of their name in the Sunday culture sections.

The problem, as far as Slint were concerned, was that they'd split in 1991, shortly after the physically and emotionally demanding recording sessions for their second LP, Spiderland. This was the record to which nearly every reviewer of Come on Die Young, the spooked-sounding outcome of Scottish tyros Mogwai's work with producer Dave Fridmann, fell over themselves to demonstrate an intimacy with. It wasn't the case that Slint had previously gone completely unnoticed, but they became suddenly, uncannily, ubiquitous in 1999.

One way of explaining this is that the cohort of variously unconventional bands - outfits as disparate as Long Fin Killie, Hirameka Hi-Fi, Pilotcan, and Billie Mahonie - who became viable objects of press attention as a by-product of Mogwai's success could be forced to cohere, for journalistic purposes, as a 'movement' only with reference to a supposed Rosetta Stone. However, crafty allusions to Slint also permitted some writers to dismiss the Lanarkshire group as copyists. There is, after all, nothing quite like revealing the derivativeness of a band in the ascendant to assuage the neuroses of teenage indie kids: 'knowing' about CODY's act of recycling bestowed a significant degree of common-room authority on those who read their copy of Select carefully.

Understandably for a band possessed then, as now, of a finessed studiousness when it comes to the music of their peers, Mogwai sensed that the comparison did everyone concerned a disservice. In a confrontational Q&A around the time of CODY's release, Stuart Braithwaite piled into a correspondent who highlighted the alleged likeness. 'Do you really think we sound like Slint?' asked Braithwaite, whose patience for glib analyses of his band has never been great. 'Have you ever heard them or are you just a student wank trying to come wide?'

The irritation that frothed up in his response spoke not only of a conviction that CODY deserved appreciation by virtue of its own merits, but of Braithwaite's disappointment that Slint had come to epitomise a style of music that they'd never really been responsible for playing. Their debut, 1989's Steve Albini-produced Tweez, essayed nine hunks of noise rock comparable to Big Black, The Jesus Lizard, or, more distantly, This Heat. For the few familiar with vocalist Brian McMahan, drummer Britt Walford, and bassist Ethan Buckler's past with sublimely dilletantish school-age Louisvillians Squirrel Bait, Tweez's progression lay in its adding of repetition and exacting rhythmic precision to that band's superimposition of hardcore's pubescent catharsis onto jazz-derived, seemingly counterintuitive time signatures. Spiderland retained some of its predecessor's scouring funk, but used it as but one facet of more intricate song structures which, as Albini put it in his Melody Maker review, recalled those of Television. Its highly-strung post-punk formalism was not, however, what many who came to the band via late-90s post-rock were led to expect.

Coming from a region effectively bereft of independent record shops, I didn't hear Spiderland until several months after CODY's appearance. When I eventually obtained a copy, it bewildered me by not sounding remotely like the effects-heavy, often electronically-altered music that the press categorised as post-rock: indeed, to a seventeen-year-old motivated by an aggressive urge to lay claim to the radically outlandish, it presented something of an old-fashioned prospect. Its instrumentation was sparse and untreated, and vocals were afforded a prominence that appeared to be at odds with the rejection of rockist emoting that sat high on the agenda of experimentalists like Tortoise. On first listen, it was hard to tell precisely why the record was widely cited as a landmark.

With hindsight, the reasons for this are clear. The asceticism of McMahan, Walford, Todd Brashear - Buckler's replacement on bass - and guitarist David Pajo's playing, alongside a set of suggestively incomplete lyrics, imbue the album with a strangeness and lucidity that transcend the over-inclusive eccentricity that often appeals to teenagers. In fact, its true achievement lies in its willingness to take musical and narrative form to the brink of collapse without ever quite nudging it over.

After almost two decades of unsuccessful efforts to read tablature and play by ear, Spiderland's curtain-raising 'Breadcrumb Trail' remains the solitary tune, bar those I've written myself, that I can extract from a guitar. This speaks volumes about the simplicity of its individual parts: the success of its execution lies not in elaborateness, but in the clairvoyant tact with which the song's negative spaces are plotted. In both its quiet sections and its battering crescendos, one can detect a severe injunction against playing that's transmitted between the musicians as each phrase draws to its close, a mutualisation of a responsibility towards silence which closely resembles the purposely fragile dynamics of a high-end performance of Mahler or Schoenberg.

For all that has been said about Slint's subtlety of articulation, the most memorable aspect of 'Breacrumb Trail' is its narrative, an ambiguous piece of American Gothic recounting a visit to a carnival which culminates in a short-lived tryst with a fortune teller. McMahan's mumbled story begins in media res - "I stepped out onto the midway […] I was looking for the pirate ship and saw this small, old tent at one end" - setting the disorienting tone for the album as a whole. Its definite articles let slip that we're listening to a story told by someone who mistakenly believes that their listeners have a pre-established familiarity with a setting. Instead, the strategic misplacing of confidence in our cognitive competence forces us instantly to ask questions as to our whereabouts.

The technique is reminiscent of Mark E. Smith's tendency to eschew the locational details we expect from stories in favour of launching shards of discontinuous information at an audience who, it is implied, have received some form of initiation into the world where the lyrics would make sense. With Smith, this is a pulp remotivation of the estrangement effects of modernist poetry, but McMahan's words situate the audience as the addressees of something more like a confession. Psychoanalysis suggests that the narratives of those who have undergone trauma will skip both fundamental contextual details and the awful crux of the matter, and it's certainly the case that 'Breadcrumb Trail', with its 'soiled' cast of grotesques, hints at the elision of something unspeakable. At the end, the sun is setting and the narrator departs, leaving the fortune teller to the uncertainties of her itinerant future. The significance of what has been told eludes us: while we have a sense that McMahan's vocal has made us party to something of considerable weight, the component which would give real shape and meaning to the story has not been slipped into place.

One's impression that Spiderland's landscape is undercut by traumatic voids emerges most powerfully in the album's closer. Relatively well-known thanks to its appearance on the soundtrack to Larry Clark's Kids, 'Good Morning Captain' rattles along to Brashear and Walford's Gang of Four-like rhythm track, and detonates on three occasions, each prefaced by a jabbing, insinuating guitar line, into riffing which retains the barest semblance of control. The story, such as it is, seems to describe the immediate aftermath of a shipwreck on a stretch of underinhabited coastline. From the outset, an odd balance is struck between understatement and camp: "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." The final detail of this opening quatrain counterpose B-movie schlock to the preceding ambiguity, and seems particularly gratuitous when the listener remembers that shipwrecks are not, generally speaking, particularly blood-soaked events. Too much dilution in the water.

As in the old Hammer House of Horror shows, the intermingling of pulp modernist anti-narrative and melodrama is sustained throughout the song. It's never established who has admitted the captain to the isolated shoreline dwelling - presumably, someone has to be present to hear that opening 'let me in' - and the narrator's perspective frequently appears to fuse with that of the titular character. Halfway through, a child, possibly the captain's son, turns up and gives everyone a fright; the song ends with McMahan - literally, according to the mythology surrounding the band - screaming himself sick as his and Pajo's feedback and overdriven harmonics interlace.

All points between 'Breadcrumb Trail' and 'Good Morning Captain', with the exception of the instrumental 'For Dinner', contain traces of a lyrical blueprint which places Gothic imagery at the service of modernist ambiguity. 'Nosferatu Man', the album's most undisguised tribute to Slint's hardcore origins, does this with playful exuberance; meanwhile, the drumless 'Don Aman', for which Walford provided vocals, describes an individual's unbearable experience of 'being watched from the outside.' This isn't merely marketable introspection, but a vertiginous experience of self-consciousness and alienation which points to the presence of Poe and H.P. Lovecraft in the album's lyrical DNA.

Spiderland literariness is, probably, the trick that was missed by music writers when the LP became the reference point du jour shortly before the millennium. Revisiting it now, one can hear how its influence has turned up in the most unlikely of places - the popularisation of math-rock by the likes of Foals has given Slint a genetic presence in the download charts - but its deployment of poetic ambiguity has largely been overlooked. The album now has solid foothold in tiresome magazine top 100s largely composed of the usual suspects, generally turning up somewhere in mid-table between other tokenistic inclusions. It still seems, however, that its defining qualities are brushed aside in pat, and typically misleading, discussions of its influence.

John Calvert
Apr 28, 2011 9:41am

The middle part of this piece is a definitive description of Slint's sound and content. Especially: and it's certainly the case that 'Breadcrumb Trail', with its 'soiled' cast of grotesques, hints at the elision of something unspeakable. Te significance of what has been told eludes us: while we have a sense that McMahan's vocal has made us party to something of considerable weight, the component which would give real shape and meaning to the story has not been slipped into place.

great stuff

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Christina McDermott
Apr 28, 2011 10:47am

Excellent piece - although I always thought that 'Good Morning Captain' had elements of Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' about it. As a fan of both Mogwai and Slint, I never really saw the comparison between them myself. I've always felt that Mogwai were more about the layers of noise, whilst there was something more cerebral and brittle about Slint.

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Bornin69
Apr 28, 2011 1:06pm

Whilst they have been exaggerated, there are clearly similarities in sound between Mogwai and Slint - long instrumental passages, generally slow tempos, 'heavy' guitars, quiet/loud dynamics etc. The first time I saw Mogwai live they were supported by Pajo's Aerial M (just to reinforce the comparisons).

The differences are pretty plain too though - lyrics are more important for Slint than for Mogwai, as the author points out. Slint are also more of a 'rock' band, whilst Mogwai have influences from areas of music like Krautrock (very marked on their later work).

They are two great bands, definitely linked but very distinct.

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Apr 28, 2011 2:13pm

so what you're saying, no one else understands Slint like you do?

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Video Buddha
Apr 28, 2011 2:23pm

Slint had some interesting and even more obscure pre-cursors, which are outside the scope of this article, but tangentially linked. Bitch Magnet's Umber from 1989 was perhaps more closely related to Tweez in sonic terms, but the closing track Americruiser, is reminiscent of Spiderland both sonically and lyrically. Soo Young Park's lyrics are definitely more abstruse, particularly as they're often inaudible and I don't remember any accompanying lyric sheet, but follow the same sorts of imagery there was a song called "Goat legged country god" and lines such as "red iron has broken his back in two"(?) amplify the feeling of unease that infused the lp. Reading various random blogs, opinion seems to be if they'd have come up with a slightly less "in your face" moniker (highly ironic given the introverted nature of the band), they might have been better remembered and had their dues too.

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Manish Agarwal
Apr 28, 2011 5:02pm

Nice article! Back in 2007 I was asked by ATP to write the programme notes for Slint's various Spiderland performances around the globe as part of the Don't Look Back concert series. Obviously the constraints of an A5-sized pamphlet meant that said analysis was not as in-depth as this piece, but here it is for yr general amusement anyway:
http://www.dontlookbackconcerts.com/dlbarchive/dlb2007archive/slint/review

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B.Voxx
Apr 28, 2011 10:08pm

Excellent piece of exposition here. As a Louisvillian/Kentuckian I think Mr. Kennedy's attempt to find the narrative thread in Spiderland is long overdue. I must say that I find Spiderland to be, in a sense, the first album to really showcase the cerebral undercurrent found in a thread of great bands from here. Mentioning Squirellbait was a nice touch as well, as they're shows always left us waiting for the next. Peter Searcy deserves a big shout out as well for this type of sound. There's an element of the city in this album Mr. Kennedy. Areas of Gothic housing in the Highlands, the fog rolling in from the river. McMahan, from my experiences with the band, wasn't really trying to capture a narrative so much as he was just being cathartic(this was a young group, some dealing with the divorce of their families at the time). Enough rambling. Thank you Mr. Kennedy, for noticing that it's not when the music occurs so much as it is the context of the setting of the music. And for anyone interested in the next chapter in Louisville's rich musical heritage, I encourage you to check out the Young Widows. Their noise is massive.

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Rob Strong
Apr 28, 2011 10:27pm

Jow
It's Billy

Love the obscurantist cock you've chosen to suck with your references, by the way. Those names should be in circulation far more than they are.

It'd be very interesting to hear McMahan's take on this. Following the Braithwaite model would dictate that the response should be 'Don't over-analyse it man, it's just rock music'
I'm assuming McMahan wrote the lyrics, of course.

Being an old fucker (aren't we all now? Everyone who's posted a response to this article, for starters), it always amuses/bemuses me when I get into discussions (online or, whoooah!, in real life) with younger folks who've heard Spiderland after Mogwai, or Rachel's after Godspeed, or Mogwai after EITS, or REM after The Decemberists, or The Beatles after Oasis. YOU DID IT OUT OF ORDER, NO WONDER YOU GOT IT WRONG.

I have been drinking.

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Johnny Nothing
Apr 29, 2011 10:35am

In reply to B.Voxx:

I think that "wasn't really trying to capture a narrative so much as he was just being cathartic" is probably closest to the truth here.

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Mitch
Apr 29, 2011 1:07pm

As a companion piece to an excellent article, here's Albini's review of 'Spiderland' :

Slint formed in 1986 as an outlet and pastime for four friends from Louisville, Kentucky. Their music was strange, wholly their own, sparse and tight. What immediately set them apart was their economy and precision. Slint was that rare band willing to play just one or two notes at a time and sometimes nothing at all. Their only other recording, 1989’s Tweez hints at their genius, but only a couple of the tracks have anything like the staying power of Spiderland.Spiderland is a majestic album, sublime and strange, made more brilliant by its simplicity and quiet grace. Songs evolve and expand from simple statements that are inverted and truncated in a manner that seems spontaneous, but is so pricise and emphatic that it must be intuitive or orchestrated or both.

Straining to find a band to compare them with, I can only think of two, and Slint doesn’t sound anything like either of them. Structurally and in tone, they recall Television circa Marquee Moon and Crazy Horse, whose simplicity they echo and whose style they most certainly do not.

To whom would Pere Ubu or Chrome have been compared in 1972? Forgive me, I am equally clueless.

Slint’s music has always been primarily instrumental, and Spiderland isn’t a radical departure, but the few vocals are among the most pungent of any album around. When I first heard Brian McMahan whisper the pathetic words to “Washer”, I was embarrased for him. When I listened to the song again, the content eluded me and I was staggered by the sophistication and subtle beauty of the phrasing. The third time, the story made me sad nearly to tears. Genius.

Spiderland is flawless. The dry, unembellished recording is so revealing it sometimes feels like eavesdropping. The crystalline guitar of Brian McMahan and the glassy, fluid guitar of David Pajo seem to hover in space directly past the listener’s nose. The incredibly precise-yet-instinctive drumming has the same range and wallop it would in your living room.

Only two other bands have meant as much to me as Slint in the past few years and only one of them, The Jesus Lizard, have made a record this good. We are in a time of midgets: dance music, three varieties of simple-minded hard rock genre crap, soulless-crooning, infantile slogan-studded rap and ball-less balladeering. My instincts tell me the dry spell will continue for a while- possibly until the bands Slint will inspire reach maturity. Until then, play this record and kick yourself if you never got to see them live. In ten years, you’ll lie like the cocksucker you are and say you did anyway.

Ten fucking stars.

‘Spiderland’ is flawless.

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May 21, 2011 9:40am

In reply to :

No

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Mert
May 23, 2011 6:35am

Nice article, Spiderland is a great album. They definitely were not the first band to use spoken-word vocals and such imagery but they did it so effectively. Most of the lyrics sound a bit spontaneous to me, I don't know why, they sound very natural like they were written right on the spot, directly from the nervous system. So I think there’s some unintentional symbolism there, I always viewed 'Good Morning Captain' as a "wrecked" man's looking back at his childhood self and the loss of innocence and regret etc... What makes this more precious to me, as I said, is that it sounds unintentional and natural, almost like having a dream and trying to analyze it afterwards. Musical quality aside, I think one of the reasons why Spiderland has become what it is to people is this mixture of experimentation and sentience. It “touched” people. Overrated or underrated, it just depends on the way you look at it and what you expect it to be.
Another band that used spoken-word vocals was the amazing Codeine, they didn't have much of a symbolism though.

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Someone
Jan 15, 2013 8:50pm

In reply to Rob Strong:

No one cares that you have been drinking.

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