Monday, October 29, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #217 - The Books - The Lemon of Pink

Of the many admirable qualities of The Books’ 2003 album The Lemon of Pink, the most prevalent in my mind is its fragmentary nature; songs open and close, shift, deconstruct themselves and recohere on a minute-by-minute basis, creating some of the most interesting and dynamic listening experiences I’ve had with any single album. Its fragments are abundant; from the start-stop nature of its dense sampling to the oft-incoherent song titles, The Lemon of Pink wants you to consistently think about the nature of its construction. More than just being an exercise in self-indulgence though, The Lemon of Pink wants you to think about your own personal growth – what’s made you the way that you are? How did you get here?
            Luckily, the aesthetic journey of the album is as interesting as the personal. Songs on the album are constructed of a near-indecipherable mix of obscure samples, Paul de Jong’s bass-y and rhythmic cello, and Nick Zammuto’s understated vocals. Traditional song structures – found most often in de Jong’s penchant for thematic rhymes in his cello – are buried under the layers of samples. We hear pre-recorded voiceover from a derelict airline, musings on the rhizomatics of temporality, interviews with Einstein, among others; somehow, de Jong and Zammuto are able to find the harmony of such wildly disparate elements.
The album opens with two eponymous tracks that act as an overture, a tuning – a banjo plucking, a cello finding its home note, fragmented vocals in various languages finding a message. “All’s well that ends well,” we’re told amid it all, a comfort found just before the music really kicks in. The remainder of the opening tracks emphasizes the album’s operative mode: folk. The banjo and cello – which sound like they could’ve been found in a bin of long-lost Arthur Russell demos or Appalachian field recordings – harmonize with one another, leading us directly into the album’s adventurous middle run of songs. After “Tokyo” starts, the album doesn’t cease to move in every which way; it wants you to explore, to discover, to experience. But, like all great folk music, The Lemon of Pink wants you to feel grounded in both the good and the bad.
            The clearest encapsulation of the album’s emotional fragmentation comes in the centerpiece track, “Take Time.” Rhythmic banjos and cello underscore musings on temporality – a sample that, in reality, is a severely chopped recording of a politician reading bible verses. Between the screwball vocals and the twangy, pulsing banjos, “Take Time” is bursting with an optimistic energy – until it starts reaching its conclusion. In the final moments of the track, layers upon layers of instrumentation and vocals are slowly cut, ending with simply a harmonized vocal sample repeating the title, the same way the song began. The ending retains the opening’s energy, but modifies it to be a bit more melancholic; life moves fast, the song says. Moments become memories. Take time to crystallize them.
The back half of the record operates in a similar mood. “Don’t Even Sing About It” conjures adolescent repression, while “The Future, Wouldn’t That Be Nice” complicates youthful optimism by reminding one of the overwhelming weight of having so much more life to live. “The True Story of a Story of True Love” gives way to the crushing nature of emotional experience, letting noise consume everything else; the instrumentals get mastered louder than the vocals until the verbalized memory dissipates entirely. And then, the album resets. “That Right Ain’t Shit,” the album’s true ending, feels like a reversal; not only does the song feature an instrument being played literally backwards, but the song utilizes warm folk instrumentation to cast a hazy, summery nostalgia on the gloom that populates the second half of the album.
It’s no wonder to me, then, that on every re-listen of the album I’m reminded of something else. A dark, humid college room; the muted greens and greys of Finland’s countryside; the pains of an impending break-up; the comfort of returning home. I feel all of these things when I listen to the record, which has remained in heavy rotation since I first listened to it years ago. I feel other things when I listen to it, too. The Lemon of Pink encourages it all, helping us to crystallize the fragments worth revisiting.
-          Harry Todd

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