“I can saw a woman in two,” Warren Zevon sings on his 2000 comeback LP Life’ll Kill Ya. Lest you think him a magician, he qualifies his skill a second later: “But you won’t want to look in the box when I’m through.” Zevon’s sardonic words have found a new—and gender-reversed—life in the stark sleeve art of the debut LP by the Brooklyn-based duo Beacon, The Ways We Separate. It’s a chilly and removed thing; the stoicism with which both parties embrace the saw digging into the box suggests that the woman isn’t just now separating the man—the divide has already happened. Insult to Injury could have been just as an apt a title.
This redundancy finds a parallel in the music of Beacon itself. At face, the duo of Thomas Mullarney III and Jacob Gossett is yet another drop in the veritable ocean that is the “ethereal R&B” subgenre, a style typically dominated by introspective, sad-sack white guys tinkering with blippy electronics and moody pad synths. (A very unfortunate descriptor, PBR&B, is thrown around with the ethereal moniker as well, but this review will not participate in endorsing a name so ludicrous.) Thus far in 2013, R&B has been mostly grandiose, spanning the bedroom R&B-turned-epic pop of Autre Ne Veut and the underwhelming opulence of Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience. Mullarney and Gossett, much like How to Dress Well and to a lesser extent the Weeknd, in contrast emphasize mood and ambience. Beacon’s music often incorporates club-ready beats and some catchy figures, but it’s far from music for a night out. The Ways We Separate, and really the whole ethereal R&B genre in general, is club music for people who don’t like the club, and perhaps also for those looking for a chance to feel drugged without mucking about back alleys for some little white pills. Tags like “nocturnal” and “opiate-like” are commonly found in discussions about this type of R&B, and not without good reason—both are apt summations of Beacon’s core style. A glass of red wine and a tear-stained copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being are this album’s ideal companions, not a glo-stick necklace and a head full of Tiësto remixes.
Because while music is art, Beacon goes out of its way to emphasize the overall “artiness” of its music, even going so far as to press The Ways We Separate in a highly limited, highfalutin box set that includes a sculpture made out of sugar. Both Mullarney and Gossett have backgrounds as art students, which explains the canvas-like quality that makes up the majority of these songs. Nearly everything about the album is textural, and every glitchy bleep and wash of synthesizer feels like a long, swishy stroke of a brush. The verses and choruses don’t feel like the strictly delineated parts of an ABA song structure either. These songs ebb and flow in an almost aqueous fashion, an ideal complement to the quality of the music itself. Unfortunately, even when Beacon does this well, which it does quite often, it doesn’t do a great deal to distinguish itself from its contemporaries. Music of this type easily becomes homogenous—much like shoegaze or post-rock, it can get so stuck in dreaminess that it lulls the listener to sleep—and while this LP has some wholly stellar moments, such as the stellar rising/falling momentum of “Feeling’s Gone,” its moodiness is nothing that hasn’t been done before.
The one exemption to this comes in the album’s lyrics. Because while it’s easy to see The Ways We Separate as cashing in on a trend in the upswing, there is a poetic element to its introspective musings that’s much more engaging than the music that backs it. There are nice twists on clichés (“We’ll pick up/Right were we left off/Life the calm/Waiting on the storm”), clever extended metaphors (the television romance of “Studio Audience”), and some evocative imagery (“Headlights keep time/From the skyline/On a warm night”). While not anthology-worthy, these lyrics reveal a strong undercurrent in Beacon’s music that indicates it isn’t a project content with rehashing worn tropes. The music just has to do a little bit more to catch up with the words. Beacon—along with ethereal R&B as a whole—just has yet to work out the kinks and redundancies, a fact unsurprising for a relatively new genre. Ultimately, like the couple on the sleeve art of The Ways We Separate, Mullarney and Gossett’s debut set of songs reveals that in trying to depict the ways people sever parts of themselves, we often reveal the separation that’s already occurred.