30 Years On: The Curiously Ignored Lyricism In Slint’s Spiderland

Three 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"

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 three 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.

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