The root idea of [At Home And Unnaffected]‘s ‘sound’ was to combine simple, lo-fi acoustic instruments and textures with the utter artificiality and impossible complexity that electronica is capable of, like an early Joni Mitchell CD skipping as you wash dishes in a house that’s falling apart.
—Caleb Mueller, Song Notes for “Guitar/Trivial Pursuit”
There was a time, not that many years ago, when I became more than a little bit enamored with the alien complexities of IDM. The little intricacies and the big complexities brought forth in the beastly beats of Aphex Twin and Autechre fascinated me, and the faster and more complex those beats got, the better. Sure, part of the appeal of the best of the IDM bands was always to incorporate some sort of synth noise to make it all sound a bit more “human”, to wrench emotion out of the machines, but for me it was always about the beats.
And while that was all well and good, a year of listening to music specifically for “beats” tends to plant the seeds of longing for something more.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much more to be found in the genre—as much as I would keep looking for the new Autechre or Squarepusher or µ-Ziq to fascinate or tittilate me, most of it just sounded like so much noise to my then-jaded ears. Give me some vocals! Give me an instrument I’ve heard before! Give me some pop! Aside from the odd experiment here or there, IDM had little to offer me.
I’d long since forgotten about such longing, having moved on to different shades of experimental and electronic music, not to mention discovering an odd affinity for flavor-of-the-day “indie” pop/rock/folk/stuff. Still, it took less than a minute for those memories to come flooding back, along with the realization that yes, finally, someone went ahead and answered those prayers of long ago. That someone is Caleb Mueller, who basically is Decomposure. Decomposure’s latest album At Home and Unaffected is the head-on collision of IDM and piano pop, with a side of Reznorisms and heady reflection (for added flavor). Indeed, as the album begins with a wash of static, the listener is led to believe that the music contained herein will lean toward experimental synthetics. When the static is broken by a poppy guitar chord progression with a vocal line whose melody might have been written by Ben Folds himself, it’s easy to think that this is a pop album. When the drill ‘n bass-style beats hit just in time for the chorus, the ultimate realization hits: The electronic and pop worlds have never collided quite like this before.
Unfortunately, the meld that is central to “Whose Side Are You On?” is sorted out a bit as At Home and Unaffected progresses, as the pop side and the electronic side separate themselves from each other a bit. Much of the album is going to be completely impenetrable to anyone looking for songs with actual musical notes attached, and those who actually enjoy those exercises in rhythm and chaos will be completely thrown off by the sudden forays into pop music, where even the drum programming is (relatively speaking) a bit pedestrian. Songs like “Bathroom/Guitar/Piano” and “Guitar/Trivial Pursuit”, which are so thematically impenetrable as to be named after the instruments and sounds used to create them, counteract fantastic pop gems like “Disconnect” (a propulsive little ditty that features a refreshingly literate diatribe on modern man’s misuse and misunderstanding of Christianity) and “The Wars” (the beautiful lighter-raising ballad of the bunch, highlighted by one of the most perfect passages of a cappella via multitracking I’ve ever heard).
As with so many projects of such grand ambition, there are problems—for one, Mueller is no master of subtlety. He has quiet passages, he has loud passages, but there is very little in-between, very little build to be found. When he’s going for something frenetic, he’ll fill in every space with sound, layering sounds upon other sounds until it all collapses on itself, and when he’s going for something quiet, he’ll limit his instruments and go for something so sparse as to be bordering on nonexistent. There’s very little in-between, and this is an album that could use a little bit of “in-between” to increase its listenability. For two, Mueller often seems shy about using his voice. Many of his vocals sound as though they were recorded in a very large room about a block away from the microphone, and such highly reverbed, muffled vocals get in the way of the listener’s enjoyment of them, particularly on the interlude of “At Home, Part One” and the fantastic, explosive close of “Buttons and Switches”.
After falling all over himself on a spoken-word/hip-hop track (“Multitracked”) that progresses like a boulder falling down a hill, the central suite of the album begins. “At Home Part Two” melds into “The Center of the World”, which leads seamlessly into “...And Unaffected”, the three coming off like a Pink Floyd song in the midst of the sinking Titanic. The seamless transitions between the three provide a more comprehensive (if less impressively executed) version of the mission statement outlined in “Whose Side Are You On?”, engaging the listener throughout a symphony’s worth of movement changes and shifts in mood, sound, and style.
So sure, there are issues—any project that seeks to tackle genre boundaries the way this one does is bound to have them. What’s important is that At Home and Unaffected is largely a whopping success, the type of album that’ll have this reviewer checking release date pages until the highly anticipated follow-up album is released.