Peter Broderick has played with lots of people – from M. Ward to Library Tapes to Efterklang – and seems to be constantly searching for his own voice in his solo work. Or maybe he’s just constantly reinventing himself. But while he borrowed from composers before him to make the solid Music for Falling from Trees, he seemed to have found his own voice as a composer on the haunting, excellent Music for Confluence.
These Walls of Mine, though, follows vocal album It Starts Here, and manages to turn away from that album’s focus and Music for Confluence‘s charms in search of new inspiration. The album is built on a pretty interesting premise. It is, according to Broderick, a series of voice experiments, songs that present themselves as sort of musical conversations. He has fashioned songs out of texts compiled from all kinds of sources. These aren’t lyrics, necessarily, but stitched together mosaics of speech.
With a focus on language and voice here, Broderick spends the record trying to find a balance between words and music, and that balance is a tenuous one. The words are interesting enough, pitting, say, the straight-up verse constructions of opener “Inside Out There” with “Freyr!”, a song that finds Broderick reading an email his father sent him about a lost cat. “When I Blank I Blank” finds Broderick compiling a sort of musical Mad Libs, asking people to fill in a more elaborate version of the title sentence. “Copenhagen Ducks” is built on field recordings of a protest march in Copenhagen. Perhaps most fascinatingly, the title track is split into two parts. The first finds Broderick explaining a piece he had written, then reading it aloud. The second part finds him then fashioning those words to music in a sort of rap.
It’s an interesting meta-moment in the record, where we see Broderick working through the process, even if that working through is itself a contrivance. It raises questions about performance, about how words represent us, about how changing the frame for those words can change the meaning. It is, in essence, Broderick in conversation with himself. If this presents interesting ideas about perspective, it also presents them without necessarily delving into them at all. The words of others are included here, but as Broderick performs them, they become his. Therefore, we don’t hear musical conversations so much as we hear an edited together perspective on those conversations.
This becomes problematic because Broderick’s perspective feels very literally limited since much of his vocal work here is delivered in hushed, overly serious deadpan. “Freyr!” could be an intimate moment, a sharing of communication between father and son, but Broderick’s overly determined tone makes it ring false. The same is true of the second version of the title track, where Broderick’s half-attempt to rap feels stuck between two poles, between the removed feeling of his spoken-word delivery and the immediacy of the beats behind him. The performance, of Broderick as rapper or slam poet or spoken-word pioneer, is, in other words, unconvincing.
You could get past this by using the music itself, but the balance between language and music on These Walls of Mine finds Broderick stretching himself thin. The electro-pop of “Inside Out There” is serviceable but a bit anonymous. “I’ve Tried” is the most successful turn here, twisting Broderick’s knack for using strings into a more pop-oriented repetition that works nicely. Unfortunately, it also points out the thinness of the pastoral-folk-cum-electro-soul of “When I Blank I Blank”. These Walls of Mine has songs built on elements that work very hard not to upset each other. Everything in the music feels to reticent, too cautious, while the words feels too wrapped up in their own virtue. Broderick seems genuinely fascinated by the voices that compile all these words – and rightfully so – and he does start down an interesting new path. In the end, though, the execution just isn’t there, and while there’s virtue in trying something new, this album never quite gets past that trying stage.