Karl Smith On Mind Over Mirrors' Undying Color
, February 16th, 2017 13:56
In the sixth release from Jaime Fennelly's Mind Over Mirrors project, expanding from a solo effort to a collaboration on five fronts, Karl Smith finds a work of folkloric mythology both saturated with history and necessary at our present moment
Mythology is important, and historically has always been so – acting as a crutch for mankind to lean on in the midst of a vertiginous and chaotic universe – providing ways of understanding, methods of coping, and a processing tool for those things too strange or too difficult to make sense of.
Once upon a time these were astronomical and meteorological phenomena – answers to questions of how the wind chooses in which direction to blow or how exactly the sun is fated to rise each morning with such regularity. The rise of magical realist art and literature over the course of the Twentieth Century, too, is not an aberration or an artistic movement performed inside a vacuum (as if such a thing exists) but runs parallel to the well-documented histories and macro-atrocities of those years – proof that even in a scientific age, even knowing that the myths we weave are false, these stories still provide powerful tools not just for making sense of what’s happening in the world around us at any one given moment but also to imbue it with peculiar meaning.
In this sense too, Undying Color – the sixth album from Jaime Fennelly under the Mind Over Mirrors moniker – fits the same mold: as a work it is both saturated with tropes, tics and ideas that hint at the possibility of meaning, and its self subject to and empowered by its own mythology.
That Fennelly spent time in isolation, embedded in a solitary landscape – intimidating both in terms of its natural beauty and its distinctness from the urbanised version of the world we are now most familiar with – is both integral (important enough to make it to the press material at the very least) and irrelevant to the music Undying Color contains within the sonic walls of its 44 minutes. Whether, as listeners, we need to know about that winter in a cabin on a ranch in Wisconsin’s Driftless region remains up for debate; that once you know, you can’t un-know and can’t help but allow that to inform what it is you hear on this record (see also: Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago), is all but undeniable.
It’s testament then, to Fennelly and his illustrious cast of collaborators – Circuit des Yeux’s Haley Fohr, Eleven Day Dream’s Beveridge Bean, Iron & Wine’s Jim Becker and Volcano Choir’s Jon Mueller – that, though inseparably entangled with its origin story, this is a generous album open to interpretations; its prescriptions and descriptions, powerful as they are, are almost always outweighed by a sprawling quality that invites or even demands introspection to be filtered through its themes.
The effect is kaleidoscopic: not one outcome, but a shifting pattern of constants, their shape wont to change on each listen and with each listener.
‘Restore & Slip’, opening with the kind of sunrise synthesizer that both epitomised and reached something close to its full potential on Julianna Barwick’s Will and the Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani FRKWYS collaboration last year, is an early indication of the comingling effect that Undying Color so deftly achieves. The gentle collision of that ersatz vitamin D bath with fiddle strings that conjur not so much “folk music,” or certainly not in the way we have been presented it in recent years by modern radio-friendly degenerations of the form, but folklore and folk traditions more in line with the feel of Shirley Collins’ Lodestar. Yet this coming together is nothing so crass as a feeling of Old World Meets New, or a battle between the archaic and the avant, but rather a rare nod to their shared storytelling prowess and the ways in which – when entwined – the images they produce are bolstered by one another, rather than juxtaposed or set in opposition. The modern instrumentation provides a vast – even potentially infinite – canvas, on which our shared and personal histories are able to paint themselves in vivid colour, its empty edges and expanding voids as much a part of the finished work as a space for it to exist within.
This spacious quality – both black hole and white, consuming and discharging in equal measure – spills over into the album’s second song (and centrepiece), ‘Gravity Wake’, punctuated only by a slow, authoritative percussion. Unable to stem the tide in either direction, however, the impact of that low concert drum, after the initial rudeness of its jolt, becomes an ultimately human one: over the course of almost 12 minutes, it gives form and function to what might otherwise have seemed overwhelming – a raw energy, sodden with naïve wonder.
Described as “Likely the eeriest and most sensual paean to Einstein’s theory of general relativity ever composed,” which for all its hyperbole seems like it might be entirely true, ‘Gravity Wake’ also serves as an ode to the falseness of pitting the mathematical against the ethereal, when each could be seen as a way of interpreting the other, acting as parallel myths, and a poignant eulogy – sung to devastating effect by Fohr and Bean – to the possible triumph of either.
The broadening of Undying Color’s sonic universe continues unabated from here until the record’s end – coming to owe more and more, over time, to Eno or Shields and culminating in ‘600 Miles Around’, which itself has shades of My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Sometimes’ in its near-religious drone.
Having moved, by this point, from the earthy scrape of the fiddle to mechanical pulses that feel closer to stellar in nature, Fennelly’s true achievement here is not just that Undying Color may seem to have come full circle in one sense, but that – in another – there is no clear beginning or end, only a passage unfolding ahead and behind, ad infinitum.
Undying Color, with all its complexity and potentially conflicting ideas, is contemporary folk without cliché – a thoroughly modern mythology and a lens through which to more freely interpret the watertight exactitudes of our 21st-century way of thinking and of moving through the world. Or, more accurately, this album is a two-way mirror through which either side can see an entirely familiar landscape – perhaps even a ranch in Wisconsin – where the signifiers remain the same but are rendered uncanny by the strangeness of what they signify.