So many spoilers, so little time. Spoilers galore. But seriously… spoilers for Annihilation and spoilers for Dark ahead. Even spoilers for Arrested Development ahead…the Mrs. Featherbottom hole goes deep. This post is a minefield. Don’t even look at it. Yea, I bet you won’t click. Is this working?
THE ALIEN | Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow There are very few twelve minute songs that I can even name off the top of my head, let alone twelve minute songs that I frequently listen to. When it comes to Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow’s mind-altering masterpiece “The Alien,” though, I can guarantee that both of us have heard this song multiple times—at least, if you know who Candice is.
It’s crazy to think that this iconic synth motif (at 4:46 in the original track) came from a box office bomb, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll agree it’s a bittersweet fate for perhaps the best cosmic horror score to be cognitively linked to a punchline for millions of kids online. The internet is a fickle friend. Like Walter White’s deeply emotional collapse that has been completely re-contextualized by simultaneous reverb farts, sad trombones, and Action Movie FX explosions, the Annihilation synth motif may have totally lost its bite for some. I can only speak for myself, but after rereading Jeff VanderMeer’s original novel and subsequently revisiting the movie adaptation’s score, I am happy to report that “The Alien” still shakes me to my very core without an ounce of hyperbole.
I’ve always felt defensive every time Alex Garland’s 2018 adaptation of Annihilation comes up in conversation. I’ve never had the best poker face, nor have I ever been able to contain my unbridled, raving adoration for this film, but I’ve also never met anyone who likes it half as much as me. Other than a few video essayists who see soul-to-soul with me on this one, the only praise I’ve seen has been lukewarm. Perhaps a bit sheepishly, I’ve retracted my “flawless masterpiece” endorsement that I came out of the theater babbling in 2018, but I still maintain that even if the first two thirds of the movie are “just okay,” the last third is still some of the best cinema I have ever experienced. When all of its cards are on the table, Annihilation becomes an airtight exploration of both the literal and metaphorical themes present in it. Not only does this movie still hold the record, in my opinion, for the most truly alien alien ever put to screen—an aspect of most movies that, from a biological and a philosophical standpoint, I am often disappointed by—but it also explores annihilation, self-destruction, and the transformations we undergo when opening ourselves up to others in such a viscerally psychological and psychedelic way that never fails to move me. That’s right, we’re doing another crying post. Before we go any further, “The Alien” is the song at Annihilation‘s climax, which means it’s kind of impossible to discuss it without spoilers—almost like Colin Stetson’s “Reborn” and Hereditary, if that isn’t even more spoilery. So, yea, spoilers ahead.
As I painstakingly outlined in my justification of “Last Exit For the Lost’s” ten-minute runtime, once a song plays through the double digits, I often lose interest unless it splits itself into acts, or at least distinct changes. Luckily, “The Alien” sounds almost like a little symphony, exceeding some EPs in length because each section follows the corresponding scene’s every shift. It’s pretty clear, for example, that someone is supposed to be talking for the song’s first minute or so, though it doesn’t waste this white space—instead, the pulsing, growling synth builds until, at 1:00 exactly, every sound of The Shimmer explodes out, so overwhelming that I still choke up fully prepared for it to happen. It took me several viewings to realize it wasn’t Ventress’s final words and subsequent sublimation into the Shimmer that brought this out of me, but the sheer power of this build itself into sizzling, dissolving strings. Oftentimes, I’m automatically ready to throw down when people say certain movie scenes wouldn’t be emotional if they weren’t backed by powerful music, but in this case, I have to hand it to Salisbury and Barrow—Ventress may melt away here, but we’re transported to another dimension with her after this musical explosion. All of this only one minute into the journey, too, if you’re counting.
It’s after this point when songs start coalescing, like everything else beyond The Shimmer’s borders. As the titular alien, a four (or more) dimensional Mandelbrot set, materializes from the scattered, glowing clusters of cells, Salisbury and Barrow’s score blends with a literal interlude from Moderat’s “The Mark – Interlude.” It’s itself a delightfully bizarre song that, corresponding brilliantly to the alien’s morphing pulses, almost reads as part of a multi-sensory language, but for the purposes of discussing “The Alien,” it’s a distraction, momentarily resolving the spine-tingling tension.
Appropriately, the actual song returns as Lena’s form is imitated by the formless being, bubbling back with apprehensive, stuttering synth at 2:32. With good headphones, it feels almost like an upset stomach, or gritted teeth—profoundly unsettling in all the right ways.
This profoundly unsettling element, I think, stems from more than just scary sounds, although “just” making scary sounds is an admirable career pursuit in my book. To me, the majority of this song is a manifestation of Lena’s experiences opening up, which themselves are manifested in the alien’s duplication and refraction of Lena and everything else within The Shimmer’s borders. Though this creature seeks to exactly duplicate Lena, its creation is as raw and painful as any other birth, as any other blind stumbling into inexplicable consciousness. To me, “The Alien” encapsulates both this scene’s literal plot and its subtext. Where it starts with a blast of loud and extraordinary abrasion, it soon breaks down into a digestible march, like a corrupted baby’s first steps. This corruption, which isn’t exactly subtle thanks to the song’s extreme distortion, feels in so many ways like psychoanalysis—trudging through the exposed strata of personal flaws and traumas that have irreversibly shaped our personal histories. Embracing these flaws and becoming something new in this acceptance, to me, is the thesis of Annihilation: in displaying our naked souls to those we’re close to as they do the same, we are annihilating ourselves, and transforming into a wholly new and alien person. As a tattered choir closes out “The Alien,” human voices are replaced by burning, boiling scrapes of deeply distorted fuzz at the 8:34 mark as if to represent this final annihilation. It’s beautiful, it’s perfect, and my only complaint is that Candice didn’t survive to the end.
There are admittedly many songs that rip right into my spirit like this one does, but I still consider them an elite few when they floor me, teary-eyed, in mere seconds. While Björk’s “Family,” which I’m still a little traumatized from, sucker-punched me just as hard, I think “The Alien”‘s religious sublimity is closer to Peter Gabriel’s orchestral version of “The Rhythm of the Heat” from his New Blood tour. Maybe have some palette cleansers ready in between these pairings, though. At least some saltines or a light brie.
Pairs Well With: “The Mark – Interlude” (Moderat), “Family” (Björk), “The Rhythm of the Heat (New Blood Version)” (Peter Gabriel)
DON’T U WORRY | Jim Noir Speaking of palette cleansers, how about a banger in the mouth?
And appropriately monarchic, no less. God save the queen, et cetera.
While I’d never call the veritable deluge of new Jim Noir content anything less than a blessing, it’s lead to a sort of dilution in his discography—he’s got so many good songs that I sometimes lose track of the classics that hooked me in the first place. Thankfully, in searching for a pairing for Jim Noir’s newest song, “WONDERFUL,” I re-rediscovered a classic from as far back as my toddler years. As much as I’m ashamed to say it, Noir’s self-titled second album often slips through the cracks these days amongst the wealth of new music available. There’s no empirical reason for it, as far as I can tell—even down to its whimsical album cover, Jim Noir is a worthy sequel to Tower of Love, at worst only maintaining the britpop whimsy of its predecessor. This album’s best, however, blossoms into Brian Wilson-esque brilliance with tracks like the electro-choral (??) “All Right,” which always knocks my socks off with its monastic danceability. It was this song, in fact, that brought me back to Jim Noir—the album and the person proper—on a road trip back in 2017. Driving to Wyoming for an annual dinosaur dig, my dad and I didn’t realize we’d uncover something from the much more recent past. When “All Right” began, I distinctly remember asking, “did this guy die or something?” Thank God or Jim or Tobias that he didn’t, because from that point on, my re-indoctrination began again.
So, about “Don’t U Worry,” which I was supposed to be talking about in the first place—while not as psychedelic as something like “All Right,” this song remains among Jim Noir‘s best in its own, bright way. Perhaps it’s just the influence of the album cover, but “Don’t U Worry” sounds simultaneously like a sunny day and outer space. These opposites are held between bubbly acoustic guitar and starry, sparkling synth; all mediated by Noir’s own vocals, here ethereal and distant despite their warm words. While a lot of Noir’s happy songs light up a muting smog of melancholy, “Don’t U Worry” is one of many that are incorruptibly optimistic, something worth treasuring just as much as scary and experimental alien noises. “Don’t you bloody worry, I’ll be fine.”
Pairs Well With: “All Right” (Jim Noir), “Beautiful Love” (Julian Cope), “Squares” (The Beta Band)
DROOLER | Palehound While not nearly as uplifting, Palehound’s “Drooler” puts just as much of a smile on my face as the sunny “Don’t U Worry”—oddly, good blues’ll do that to you (or maybe just me). Of course, “Drooler” is more than meets the ear, snaking through more styles than the average blues beat. In fact, when my sister first sent me “Drooler,” its first, fuzzy notes and Ellen Kempner’s stark voice tricked me into thinking this song was far more sadgirl. As I’ve discussed ad nauseam by now, sadgirl is never a bad label, and I still would’ve enjoyed the song if it was only this arpeggiating, almost baroque guitar, much like the hypnotizing “Money” from Adrianne Lenker & Buck Meek. Still, it gives a very different impression of the song’s trajectory, and much like Fishbone’s “Party at Ground Zero,” it surprises listeners when the rubber band snaps, launching forth into an entirely different sound. If “Party at Ground Zero”‘s transition is an explosion, though, “Drooler” instead lurches to life like rusty tank treads. Here’s where the blues really kicks in, though come to think of it, I should specify the sort of blues I’m referring to. To me, “Drooler” swings with all the swagger, tempo, and twang of Blues without the edge of Robert Johnson’s antebellum, southern sorrow. Sure, the lyrics are spat like sludge and salt, but Kempner brings more smirking, punk angst than oppressive sadness. It’s this spirited defiance that, I think, oxymoronically “fun” blues—that which spawned rock in the first place—brings the aforementioned swagger to subjects that would otherwise be despairing. It’s the sort of soul that makes me (guiltily) smile despite the chorus singing “vandalize my body if it helps / you sleep / soundly”—that, and the trembling chaos that crescendos with every verse, creating plate-shattering percussion from industrial abrasion (reminiscent of the revolutionary samples in Kate Bush’s “Babooshka,” by the way, because we haven’t talked about Kate Bush yet this week).
Yet amongst all this talk of Kate Bush, Robert Johnson, Fishbone, Adrianne Lenker, and Buck Meek, I’d say “Drooler” bears very little resemblance to any of the bunch—even “Money,” the closest song we’ve talked about so far, only sounds like the first thirty seconds or so. In fact, I wouldn’t have made any of these comparisons on my first listen to “Drooler”—though I was instantly hooked and nodding my head, I wouldn’t have called this pick anything more than a solid rock song. That in itself isn’t a backhanded compliment—I thoroughly enjoyed what was on the surface, and still do—but it’s always nice to look deeper into a song, and appreciate its twists and turns. In a time when most music consists of a single, looped riff layered with building ambience, songs like “Drooler” are a treat to pick apart. Good job, Palehound!
Pairs Well With: “Billy” (Horsegirl), “Dedicated” (The Amps), “Money” (Adrianne Lenker & Buck Meek)
ERASED | Ty Segall As solid rock songs go, though, Ty Segall is on an undefeated streak. I’m a little surprised this side of our favorite seabird hasn’t shown his face on Songs Of The Week (Max! Todd! Dot! Com! Songs! Of! The! Week!)—much as I love his latest Sergeant Pepper sidequest “Hello, Hi”, it’s far from the usual Ty Segall fare. For a look at the top of his hard rock game, I’d look no further than the previous album, Harmonizer, which is stacked end-to-end with equal parts screeching guitar and sounds that make you go, “excuse me?” I’ve actually revisited several songs on Harmonizer this week, and as you can imagine, I had trouble selecting a highlight—just know no matter what I’ve picked now, they’re all this good. That said, “Erased” won my favor this week thanks to its hair-raising opening notes, skidding in like a cyberpunk bike. I don’t know much about guitar, but the guitar in this track certainly exhibits some range—those opening whines plunge to crunching lows that almost sound downtuned to my untrained ears. Like Soundgarden before him, Segall’s guitar almost crashes like metal, but his vocals twist the tone entirely—hitting high; sharp and instantly identifiable as no one but Segall.
Pairs Well With: “Whisper” (Ty Segall), “High Ball Stepper” (Jack White), “Up The Beach” (Jane’s Addiction)
GOODBYE | Apparat (with Soap&Skin) If I haven’t already made it clear, theme songs are a sacred ritual lost to greed and that the “skip intro” button is one of the most insidious, coddling trends in the history of corporate entertainment, and I’m holding back any beta-male “I think” sniveling because this is just the facts. And while Dark‘s theme may not be as, um, hype as the main titles of something like Severance, Stranger Things, or my darlingest Cowboy Bebop, “Goodbye” perfectly prepares viewers for the oppressive, depressive, darkness (if you’ll forgive me) ahead. This collaboration between Apparat and Soap&Skin is a match made in heaven, their collective spookiness simmering in the magic spot between exciting, awe-inducing, and outright foreboding. It’s the sort of piece made to be a theme song, bottling an extremely specific tone and drawing out the tension for the incoming episode. It’s a meditative moment I always lament missing in shows where the theme song is just a careless musical sting and a logo, or else no song entirely—I may be going full get-off-my-lawn, but it’s the sort of trend that makes me freak out about attention span of iPad kids. Ironically, though, even the lavish minute or so of theme music Dark gives its viewers spoils “Goodbye”‘s incredible build. Much like The Cure’s immaculate “The Kiss,” the majority of “Goodbye” is an instrumental build, starting only with hollow drums like stretched pig’s bladders and jangling strings that echo into the distance. Though 3:07‘s harmonies will always strike balefully, I only get chills after listening to the full three minutes prior.
“Goodbye” is as goth as it gets, so it’s no surprise that it pairs frighteningly well with another Cure classic, “Lullaby.” Actually, I’m pretty proud of these three pairings in particular—if you’re going to listen to any of this week’s songs, these are mandatory together. Like, the light cymbals coming in on both “Goodbye” and Ben Salisbury’s “Out” hitting just as the build picks up? Chef’s kiss.
Pairs Well With: “Me & The Devil” (Soap&Skin covering Robert Johnson), “Lullaby” (The Cure), “Out” (Ben Salisbury)
Another wonderfully whimsical piece touched by notes of uncanny, um, grossness, Leonora Carrington’s How Doth the Little Crocodile has been on my art shortlist from the moment I saw it. Seriously, what in God’s name is happening here? The strange perspective of water stretching across directionless space, the scribbled crocodile babies seemingly riding a hollowed-out husk of their own kind, the face of nebulas and comets in the stars? This is what it’s all about, you guys. So good.
Sorry about the two week absence, by the way—as my undergrad closes out, I’ve gotten busy with some final projects that I’m finding the energy to overcommit to despite my senior-addled brain. As I start work again this summer, this schedule might remain a little choppy, but it’s important to me that this routine keeps happening, so things will certainly stabilize soon. In the meantime, thanks for sticking with me!
Wait sorry, who’s Candice? I urgently need to know
Candace Owens, bless her heart. Her conservative policy led her to a dark and isolating Randian state of mind. She was the first member of the expedition to be consumed by the fungus. Gone too soon.
“….a banger in the mouth.” Oh Tobias….
He forgot we were in the colonies