Ghost in the machine
Daniel Johnston has, more or less, made his name on unruly, all-natural talent, the sort of songwriting acumen that cuts through every kind of personal handicap and gets to a messy core of truth. Lo-fi to the point of alienating some listeners, he seems unlikely to have much in common with electronic music. The genre is, after all, clean, cerebral, and detached. It evokes human emotions through cool, synthetically-derived sounds and scratchy, perfectly timed beats.
It is, therefore, sort of a shock to hear Johnston’s wild, frayed voice emerging out of Angst Is Not a Weltanschauung, by Berlin electronicist B. Fleischman. Johnston takes unembellished charge of “Phones, Machines and King Kong”, singing a capella for the first minute of the piece. He is singing his “King Kong”, an emotionally fraught imagination of what it is like to be a monster in love with a beautiful woman. It’s a metaphor for Johnston, obviously, but also for the way that genuine feeling can be thwarted in our cold, efficient modern age. It seems to say that we are all monsters when we are in love. We are trapped in a web of expectations and standards and responsibilities that simply cannot allow us to rampage on, unchecked, in pursuit of our desires.
“Phones, Machines and King Kong” comes about halfway through Fleischmann’s album, but it makes sense to start there anyway. The piece is only the most dramatic instance of what Fleischmann is attempting all along: to nurture human warmth and emotion in the austere beds of electronic music. This is not a new project for him, or for likeminded artists on the Morr Music label. Fleischmann’s last album, The Humbucking Coil in 2006, layered gorgeous, repeated acoustic guitar licks on top of data streamed rhythms and tones. Yet this time, he goes a bit further, adding voices—his own as well as others—to two-thirds of the album tracks. Twice he employs a duet—William Van Ghost singing the male parts and Marillies Jagsch the female—to add even more complicated layers of emotional dissonance to his songs.
Consider, for instance, the track “24.12”, where at a chance supermarket aisle meeting on Christmas Eve, a man asks a woman why she’s so happy. Her answer is startling. “Because my husband’s life ended / The asshole is gone / I celebrate life alone”, she says in the most matter-of-fact way possible. The song gets all its drama from this wildly unexpected exchange. The musical elements—a twitchy, schussing beat and rich blots of synthesizer—could not be more restrained. And yet there is something in this vivid scene that erupts unexpectedly from the beat and subsides just as quickly under it that is very much like life.
There are a handful of all-electronics cuts that showcase Fleischmann’s skill with rhythm (he’s trained as a drummer) and playful mood. “The Market” is maybe the best of these, its drum cadences splintering into complex fractal beats, as piano chords and a simple guitar melody move up and down in the mix. (There is a single group shout of “No” near the halfway point, but this does not really alter the tune’s instrumental focus.) “Last Time We Met at a T&TT Concert” is more restrained, its minimalist rhythms modestly embellished with keyboards and perhaps some sort of accordion.
The loveliest of all the songs, though, ponder the intersection of human and artifice, both in the music and the lyrics. In the opening “Hello”, Van Ghost greets the tools for songwriting—voice, piano and blank white paper—against a modest arrangement of piano and synthetic drums. Fleischmann himself sings the haunting “Even Your Glasses Miss Your Eyes”, which closes out the album. Obliquely, he sketches a recently emptied home, where all the furnishings seem to share his loss. “So who is going to take care of your sheep?” he asks. “And who is now stroking your cheek? / Even your glasses miss your eyes.” The song is more fluid than most on the disc, with glowing sustained keyboard notes and a slippery vocal melody, but it still has enough artifice in it to make us sad, not just for the lonely lover, but for the glasses left behind.
- "24.12" MP3