It is perhaps trite to compare such unimaginable suffering with as slight an indie release as Rivulets’ Debridement, especially on the basis of a shared word, but one aspect of the analogy certainly holds true: this is a wholly excised sound, trimmed of all but essentials. And if it shrinks from overstated passion, from raised voices amid the fray, one might simply describe it as “burn-shy”, a whispered attempt to reconcile the sacred with the profane.
Rivulets (a.k.a., Minnesota minimalist Nathan Amundson) could in one sense be described as the moody progeny of Low—and on Debridement, with its bleak sparsity and echoing spaces, not to mention with Alan Sparhawk engineering and Mimi Parker contributing her voice here, this genealogy certainly shows. Initially recorded in a church (Duluth’s Sacred Heart Cathedral), with only Amundson’s voice and acoustic guitar amid the vaulted hush, Sparhawk then overlaid the remaining textures in the studio, utilizing the musical talents of various contemporaries.
Just as “debridement” sounds like such a lyrical and inoffensive word, so the music of Rivulets initially sounds gentle and reflectively plaintive. Both, however, conceal barely articulated pain and surprising power. Shoes squeaking on cold tile floors, traffic sounds, the squeal of fingertips on brass wound guitar strings, a cough—all these real world elements remain from the initial echo-hush recording, and are augmented by subtle studio instrumentation: occasional organ, piano, barely heard banjo, voice harmonies, picked electric guitar, minimal percussion (cymbals, tambourine, brushed snare). Far from expressing anguish through raucous yelps and frenzied volume, Rivulets is the sobering, near-defeated moan of the quietly wounded—and is no less harrowing for that.
Opening with just Amundson’s small voice, “An Evil” steals into the dry sacred air, oddly reminiscent of Sinéad’s “Tiny Grief Song” from the much-maligned Universal Mother. With 42 seconds of disquietingly simple solo a cappella (“there’s an evil in this room”), and the austere tone is set immediately. “Cutter” is mournfully strong, a serene keyboard and nuanced banjo almost succeeding in bolstering the dead weight of a strummed acoustic, yet eventually succumbing to whatever pursues it, with a wearily picked guitar outro, gossamer voices floating almost out of earshot.
Melodically, these songs are fairly unadorned, but the emotions twisting up from their roots are not always accessible, or easy. There’s a coldness—a distance, perhaps literally amplified by the chilly acoustics—that precludes intimacy, other than in small vulnerable glimpses (on the alcoholic prayer “Conversation with a Half-Empty Bottle”, for example). Occasionally, the music attempts to look outward with only limited success (such as on the alternate-reality distorted Beach Boys sidelong glance “Will You Be There”), and even more rarely, a kind of guarded beam of optimism breaks through the airy gloom (“The Sunsets Can Be Beautiful [Even in Chicago]”). But overall, the mood is agoraphobically sorrowful and agonizingly introspective (the skin-crawlingly susurrant “Shakes”, the eerie hope-bereft “Steamed Glass”).
The album does slow to a near funereal crawl towards the end, and consequently loses some of its powerful intensity. The songwriting wilts a little, too, but this is a record for those quiet moments in which self-belief and confidence just plain sag and you reach for the reassurance that you’re not alone in that. Like the meaning that lurks behind its deceptively pretty title (and echoed by the broken doll cover art), Debridement may well be excruciatingly distressing at times, but without its stark excision there can be no real healing.