The liner notes for If Thousands’ Lullaby includes the decidedly non-Freedom Rock instruction, “Please listen to this recording at as low a volume as possible to induce & aid in slumber.” It reminds me of the story I read somewhere where Brian Eno fell asleep during another musician’s performance and told him afterwards that falling asleep wasn’t an insult but the highest compliment he could pay. There’s music for dancing, music for traveling, and yes, music for sleeping. My Bloody Valentine, Windy and Carl, Galaxie 500, Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, the extended jams in the middle of Jimi Hendrix’s Live at Winterland . . . this is the music I take naps to, music that has the unique ability to carry me off into the far-off land of dreams. If Thousands’ album is poised to join this select group. You don’t call an album Lullaby unless you mean it, and they do.
I don’t know how cold it gets in Duluth, Minnesota, but I imagine the temperatures get low enough to make you want to live in a permanent huddle somewhere with good heating. Lullaby was recorded in Duluth in May, so the cold presumably wasn’t a factor, yet the album still has that aura of a band holing themselves inside for a while and diving headlong into their music in an attempt to capture a certain mood. From the album’s start, where silence slowly gives way to gently quivering keyboards and hovering guitar, through to its end, the music floats along like a delicate fog of gorgeous noise. Christian McShane and Aaron Molina, the duo that is If Thousands, use keyboards, guitars, and various unidentified noises to build up an atmosphere that is captivating, even as it carries you off to a state of near-sleep. The album is less a collection of songs than the distillation of an aura, the containment of a very particular essence. Though Lullaby is divided into nine tracks, they all run together as one piece and feel like one extended lullaby, the lovely yet ambiguous soundtrack to the varied dream-lives of its listeners.
By sounding more like a large sonic cloud that’s overhead than a song or batch of songs, Lullaby leaves room for the listener’s emotional state. At various times, the music can feel comforting or ominous or filled with confusion, even when its tone hasn’t really changed. For the length of the album, there are no abrupt changes, no major shifts in style, tempo or key. Yet the more you listen, the more involving it becomes, like a painting that seems simple yet moves you in different ways the longer you give yourself to it.
Therein lies the perplexing nature of Lullaby. It’s an album explicitly created for sleeping, yet the closer you listen the more you hear. We’re told to listen at a low volume, yet the louder I turn it up the more I hear. Do you let the music float you off to sleep or listen with your eyes wide open? When you sleep, do you stop listening, or is it possible to do both? I fear that listeners who fall asleep too quickly may not even hear the voice on the second track, offering poetic words painting an oblique image of a fading cowboy, or notice that the song titles for the first batch of tracks are built from those words. They might completely black out before some of the album’s prettiest and eeriest moments, which occur for me during the middle tracks, or miss feeling the way the music interacts in a stirring, unsettling way with the voice of a man describing his feelings about someone who has died, on track 8, “We Miss Matt Terribly”. That allusion to loss and grieving meets the theme of sleep in a complicated way, reminding us of the final sleep, death. And Lullaby‘s cover art supports that theme, with what looks like aged or burned paper forming a peephole through which you glimpse the ruins of a building. Perhaps Lullaby wasn’t created to help us fall asleep at night but to coax us into that ultimate sleep; perhaps this is funeral music. Remember what Nas said: “I never sleep / Cause sleep is the cousin of death”. Lullaby might be the last album you listen to or it might lead to great dreams. Either way, you won’t forget it.