In Animal Tongue
, October 10th, 2011 14:53
In 1887, the author and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman was ordered to retire to bed for nine weeks as a 'rest cure' for the depression she'd suffered following the birth of her daughter. Forbidden to do so much as roll over, Gilman channelled her horrific experience into the writing of a short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. A blistering whorl of confusion and psychosis, it takes the form of the journal of a similarly bed-bound woman who becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper covering the room to which she's confined. Lying still for days on end, she comes to see a woman inhabiting its patterns and - in the depths of psychosis - tears strips of it off the wall in an attempt to free her new companion. At the story's conclusion she tells her horrified husband 'I've got out at last' and he promptly faints. It's a haunting tale which combines gothic melodrama with feminism; startlingly individual and collectively inspirational. Its ambiguously triumphant/horrifying ending (and the very act of its writing) constitutes a victory for creative power-to over disciplinary power-over, and pre-empts the (perhaps uncomfortably romantic) idea of the 'schizorevolutionary' found in the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari - a figure who breaks down the unity of all forms in seeking to navigate beyond the present.
Carla Bozulich's previous albums for Constellation (In Animal Tongue is her fourth, and her third with Evangelista, though it's not clear where she ends and the group begins) have always made me think of the schizorevolutionary 'heroine' of Gilman's story. 2008's Hello, Voyager contains a dedication "to St. Anne, who's gone mad" and on 2006's Evangelista Bozulich states that "you may have to tie me down… just to keep me from screaming out". And as in The Yellow Wallpaper, there's something more than a personal exorcism taking place in these works - the music summons into being new forms of collectivity to those who listen attentively. Speaking to Quietus writer David Stubbs for a piece in The Wire, Bozulich suggested as much, saying that her music is "about encouraging other people to step out of the oppression they may have bought into or sucked into… I feel that in my little way I want to speak out against that sort of oppression, that control, the way people are kept in line and prevented from speaking out".
In Animal Tongue speaks out to startling effect. With a sparkling pool of talent that includes Nels Cline, members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sam Mickens of The Dead Science alongside full-time members Dominic Cramp and Tara Barnes, it's a more subdued sonic affair than Evangelista/Bozulich's previous Constellation releases. They've always been a subtle unit, resisting obvious moments of catharsis in favour of subtle dynamics, but here they manage the trick that Khanate mastered so effectively and create a tension that derives as much from the fear of silence as it does from the threat of noise. The closest you get to a 'release' here is the quiet brutality displayed when cellist Francesco Guerri shifts from plucking his instrument to bowing it during 'Bells Ring Fire', but this is not an album of obvious climaxes.
If this doesn't make for a particularly immediate album, Bozulich's lyrical ability should at least strike on first listen. Alarmingly disconcerting, her words dissolve the opposition between dream and reality, and you can never be certain from whose perspective lyrics are being sung; or to whom they're being addressed. "Get onto your knees / you're gonna fix the world / stay around and sing baby" sings Bozulich on 'Black Jesus'- but who is she addressing? Herself? The listener? An unknown third party?
It's schizo for sure, but In Animal Tongue is revolutionary too. With its mix of traditional song forms, improv, subtle studio manipulations, half-spoken vocals and desolate content, it initially recalls John Cale's Music for a New Society (and 'Die Alone' is every bit as desperate as anything on that lost masterpiece). But where the titular 'new society' of that album had already established itself as a horrific End of History, In Animal Tongue refuses closure, instead calibrating the listener's compass for a journey to a new society.
The most overt expression of this sense of becoming is found with the album's closing words, which Bozulich uses to tell in hushed tones of "the change I'm hatching", but the album is punctuated by moments of hope, many of which reference outer space (recalling the imagery of 'Truth Is Dark Like Outer Space' from Hello, Voyagers). "I don't want to grow cold here… I'm not trapped or possessed" sings Bozulich on 'Tunnel to the Stars', before stating that "my body is singing to the stars". 'Artifical Lamb', meanwhile, implores the listener to "look in my cracked eye- you'll see planets". There's no blueprint for the future here though; no completed vision of the good life, for this is a utopianism without a utopia. We can either accompany Evangelista on their wondrous, terrifying journey or, like the husband in The Yellow Wallpaper, flounder helpless on the floor, trapped in a pathetic present.