It seems like there are two kinds of songs that really stick with you. There’s the kind a listener immediately recognizes as a “good song”—one whose success is a product of clear artistry, skilful arrangements, hummable melodies, and/or carefully-chosen lyrics that crystallize some mood in a way that seems just right, that conveys some truth you maybe already know but could never have expressed so well. Then there’s the kind of song that you think, reasonably, should probably not be able to move you quite as it does. It seems a little too easy, too pat; it haunts you, in part, because you can’t explain the emotion by breaking it down into smaller parts, there’s so little there to begin with.
The songs of Brian Borcherdt are of the latter category. That doesn’t mean they’re some kind of quasi-mystical entities operating on a purely subliminal level. There are some clear ways in which they work technically. The sparse arrangements and repetitive melodies leave ample room for Borcherdt’s vocals, which, oscillating between the yearning upper registers of Neil Young and the earthbound wistfulness of Jeff Tweedy, account at least to some extent for the music’s pervasive, haunting qualities.
There’s also the music’s unusually focussed intensity. Borcherdt’s oevrue—an EP called Moth, released in 1999 to commemorate the death of a friend, and two LPs, both titled The Remains of Brian Borcherdt—seems to arise all from a single place. Borcherdt has a few notes, a few snatches of melody that he keeps coming back to over the course of these albums—but these seem to be, rather than the self-plagarism of the unimaginative, instead a deliberate stringency that evokes the narrow, resonant rooms of introspection. This is true even when there is a fair bit of variety in the song’s actual arrangements, as on the first Remains LP, where heavy rock trades off with cheesy drum machine-based electropop and sparse voice-and-acoustic interludes. Borcherdt’s thin, quavery voice even manages a nice bit of screaming on “New Mexico”.
But even on these heavier songs, the music is consistently carried by the subtleties of Borcherdt’s vocals, which, even with metal crashing down around them, act as the one clear strain that draws the listener into the song and holds her there. The same quality is also suggested by the simple, repeating arrangements, a few chords that keep rising and returning, a kind of refrain of loss that keeps swelling out of reach and coming back to itself. The narratives of love and regret that frame the songs lyrically are almost beside the point, more mutely gestural than contextual. There is, in these albums, very little to hold onto concretely, very little to lay fixed claim to.
Which almost seems to be the point: “Oftentimes the lyrics come afterwards,” says Borcherdt. “To me the songs are really about the moment when I was first writing the melody in my head; sitting on a friend’s bed in another city, or standing at the edge of a stage at some festival in, like, Wisconsin. The angle the sun was at, that point on a summer evening, the smell, whatever. It’s not about the lyrics at all.”
Maybe that makes Borcherdt sound like some too-fey-for-this-world singer-songwriter whose talent is inextricably bound up with a broken, awkward persona. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To watch the Remains of Brian Borcherdt play is to see a deft performer navigate the spaces between connecting with the audience and carrying the music across. Borcherdt looks and sounds like someone who has spent long enough onstage to know how to convey intimacy through inanimate objects. Taking the opening slot on a Dependent Music tour, Borcherdt can command an audience of 1000+ Wintersleep fans with a low wail and a long stare. Once he’s got their attention, he’ll hang back from the mike and murmur a few bars looking at the floor as if he’d forgotten them. Then, milking the tension for all its worth, pull out of range of the monitors entirely, mouth still chewing out the note.
Nor is Borcherdt a stranger to the kind of high-energy projects that demand a more uncomplicated stage presence. His noise-rock band, Holy Fuck—cobbled together with members of Wintersleep, By Divine Right, and Blue Rodeo—goes right for the stomach in straight-up, pogo-till-you-puke jams. Formed in 2004 almost as a joke (the band took the stage at Toronto’s NXNE before they had ever played a note together), Holy Fuck took off in a way no one seems to have expected. They’ve toured the UK with Wolf Parade, collaborated with anti-pop artist MC Beans, and played at festivals ranging from CMJ to All Tomorrow’s Parties. These days they tour on and off all year round—a mixed blessing for a band that was originally a side project to members’ more “serious” outlets.
Borcherdt says he loves the excitement, and likes being able to alternate between the playfulness of Holy Fuck and the introspection of his solo project. “This way I have something that’s very celebratory, and something that’s more a slice of my own mind,” he says. Besides, there’s nothing to prevent him from focusing on Remains stuff in his spare moments on tour. “I’m writing in my head all the time, I’m humming what I feel.”
Still, he admits a little regret at not having the time right now to bring all those songs to fruition. “I feel like I haven’t recorded half the music I’ve written,” he says. “If you told me this was how it was going to be for the rest of my life, I’d be disappointed.”