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Album Of The Week

What Are Words Worth? Félicia Atkinson's Image Language
Daryl Worthington , June 23rd, 2022 09:19

Music and lyrics conspire to form a puzzle for Daryl Worthington

Felicia Atkinson. credit - shelter press

I’m sitting in a room, perhaps similar, perhaps different, to the one you’re in now. My brain is numb goo from a day spent looking at spreadsheets and news feeds. The speaker on my desk emits a flickering drone and a swell of overlapping voices, from ‘The Lake is Speaking’, the second track on Félicia Atkinson’s new album, Image Language.

Initially in French, a language I don’t understand, a new layer of comprehension comes when some of the speech switches to English. At first it’s a word here or there, a gorgeous piano arrives as my ears start to latch onto full sentences: “I lay on the ground. I am full of love and fear. I bless the oranges and I feel blessed by the oranges. I don’t need shoes anymore. I open my feet to the fresh dirt.” The sounds and words hush my over- (or is it under?) stimulated brain. Give it something to connect to and unpick.

Cryptic without ever feeling deliberately evasive, Atkinson encourages us to join dots, imagine scenes, perhaps construct a fleeting mental picture of the worlds she describes. Her musical arrangements are as lucid as her words. Opener ‘La Brume’s rasping sax and swelling chords are positively Lynchian until about four minutes in, when there’s a flash of moonlit keys and the sax softens to momentarily lift into a wave of cosmic soul music. Elsewhere her tracks bristle with celestial keys, fragmented electronics and crumpled acoustic ephemera to create a sonic terrain somewhere between a panoramic landscape and an intimate voice note.

There’s a lot to process in these nine tracks, but what begins as enigmatic starts to become tangible. As the liner notes explain, they are exercises in putting multiple perspectives, human and non-human, into conversation. It means we need to meet Atkinson half-way, to be active participants in what she’s trying to convey. That might sound like work, but it’s rewarding work. The mirror image of that struggle to translate ideas in your head into words. Atkinson leaves the trace, and then encourages the listener to work backwards and find what’s behind it.

In the Beast & The Sovereign Vol. II, Jacques Derrida argued “there is no world, there are only islands.” He writes that an “infinite difference” makes no two experiences of reality the same. In other words, we all live in our unique islands, a distinct perspective defined by our context, rather than a single world. Whether you agree with Derrida or not, Atkinson reminds us it’s still possible to speculate, to look for the clues that give us an insight into our world and another’s.

Listening to Image Language turns us into detectives and archaeologists. It’s music of glimpses and hints. On ‘The House That Agnes Built’ (the Agnes of the title is the painter Agnes Martin), a slow stream of single words solidify into instructions, “You just go there and sit. And look.” The structure echoes the minimalism of Martin’s artwork. Read out over ghostly pulses, Atkinson creates a scene and then makes the listener an actor in it.

Her instrumentals are equally effective in breaking the third wall. ‘Our Tides’ somber pianos and meandering bass jolt into metallic clangs before subsiding into a twinkling plink plonk which almost sounds like the notification tone on my phone. Is that association deliberate? Is it just in my head, a reflection of my specific context? Who knows, but it’s these questions hidden in the details that make Image Language so fascinating.

Atkinson cites the spoken narratives in movies, particularly Jean Luc Goddard’s, as an influence on this record, which explains the sense of scene-setting throughout. Although working with language rather than moving images, Atkinson often explores something which parallels soundtrack dissonance – when the audio to a film either works with or against what’s happening on screen. Musically, ‘Pieces Of Sylvia’ sounds like Terry Riley wrote a composition to be performed using a haunted house, its creaking strings and disturbed piano occasionally interrupted by surges of pure electronic signal. The song is inspired by Atkinson researching the life and death of Sylvia Plath. It’s never completely clear who or what’s perspective she’s taking. But the words she uses – “once I was ordinary”, so reminiscent of Plath’s writing, combine with the music to make the feeling of turmoil in the track acute.

Elsewhere, phrases like “Dust becomes harder to bear, beneath the air. The liquid becomes, harder to bear”, on ‘Les Dunes’, sit uneasily in the soundscape. The track’s audio is largely dominated by soggy chimes and eerie bristles, but Atkinson reads these lines just when comparatively jovial keys sneak into the fray. The moment seems far too deliberately executed to be an accident. The assemblage of words and music raises questions, exposes a gap that as listeners we can’t help but fill in.

Atkinson’s work has previously been compared to ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), a weird tingling feeling triggered by certain kinds of audio stimulation. But Image Language shows why that obscures as much as it reveals about why Atkinson’s albums are so captivating. While ASMR enthusiasts tend to latch onto the effect of specific sounds, the sonorous qualities of a voice over what it’s saying, Atkinson’s work draws attention to the relationships between audio and language. On what words and sounds might mean as much as their texture.

Which is to say, this record feels as much about communication as sensation. The language she uses isn’t an afterthought to the texture of her voice. What she says, what it suggests and how it interacts with the music, is crucial. 

Image Language doesn’t wash over you or immerse you. It doesn’t fixate on details in the same way as an Alvin Lucier composition, yet Atkinson has a similar knack of wielding sound to temporarily fill psychic and physical space. Lucier’s most well-known piece, ‘I’m Sitting in a Room’, used speech and language to explore the materiality of sound. Atkinson tangles words into music to change the properties of both. By doing so, she throws up riddles that stop you in your tracks. There’s ambiguity, but with just enough clarity to encourage you to step in and explore. To try and understand another’s perspective without disguising the fact it’s almost impossible to fully do so.