[18 April 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
You can’t talk about Slint without talking about Louisville. They are indelibly connected. Will Oldham, another staple of the Louisville music scene, now-famously took the photo that graces the original cover of Spiderland. Members Brian McMahan and Britt Walford also played in seminal Louisville band Squirrel Bait. David Pajo has played with all form of band that has come out of Louisville and, more largely, the Midwest. And McMahan (along, for a time, with Pajo) started up the criminally underrated For Carnation. They influenced countless bands after them, and if that influence has over time spread far beyond the borders of one city, the varied lines still draw a complicated map that leads back there, back to Slint’s home.
But it’s also hard to talk about Slint and talk about Spiderland, because it has become so influential, so important to listeners, musicians, and critics alike. Its classic status now makes it easy to forget that not many people cared about it when it first came out, that it took a while to catch on. It’s also important to remember that the story of Slint was over even before Spiderland hit shelves. The band had broken up months before the album’s release, and if the story has picked up a bit since then, it still was at a standstill when this album came out in 1991.
So to talk about Spiderland is different than talking about Slint, as even a casual listen to their other album, Tweez and the Slint single would suggest. Slint was a band of great musicians thriving in a music community, one that may have seemed insular at the time but reached out anyway, even before the internet made such things easier. Slint flat-out knew what they were doing, as it evidenced by the bonus material in the new deluxe box set of their most famous record. Basement demos and riff tracks show these songs relatively fully formed, even if the studio helped sharpen the songs to a finer edge. These outtakes give a sort of new context for the album itself, which sounds brilliant in this remaster, but they don’t exactly give us a complete story. Even the huge booklet and documentary about the band here don’t exactly give us the clear picture of Spiderland.
Maybe part of this is because so much has been said about the album. But that’s not all of it either. The thing about Spiderland is that it is as much about what isn’t there as what is. If Slint had a clear home in Louisville, this land they created on record is distinctly unmoored, cut loose, otherworldly. “I stepped out onto the midway,” McMahan begins on opener “Breadcrumb Trail”, which leads us to a circus tent and a fortune teller. So we’re cast into the occult and strange, but from where? We don’t know where the voice was before the midway, where it emerged from. Something similar happens on “Don, Aman”. We know a name in the first line when “Don stepped outside”, but again we don’t know from where. If we learn quickly it’s from a dinner party, the kind of party and Don’s relation to it remains unclear. This could be the kind of socially awkward gathering of necessity John Cheever would write about in wry sadness or the kind of suburban, upper-class setting a postmodern satirist would skewer with sad wryness.
Either way, we’re given no landscape. On closer “Good Morning, Captain”, the captain has survived a shipwreck, and the speaker sees the wreckage in the ocean behind the captain at his door, but by morning it’s all gone, taken by the sea so completely it’s hard to tell if it was ever there to begin with. The dreamlike on Spiderland presents itself as a lack in reality, something missing so fundamental you miss it at first. And yet, lyrically, it presents a basic set of emotions around those holes in logic. Don is in search of identity, much like the speaker in “Breadcrumb Trail”, but when “Good Morning, Captain” closes with the wailing “I miss you” over and over again, it’s clear that this is not just a land in search of connection, it’s full of people searching out same.
That it conveys such universal themes so uniquely is one of the unsung powers of Spiderland. The music itself reflects the same there-and-not-there tension. How, for instance, are there no drums for such long stretches in the middle of “Don, Aman”? How are those guitars cleaned of distortion for two unendingly tense minutes? When the distortion does come in, it somehow feels both thick and scraped out, a confusion of feeling as “Don laughed at himself.” The album’s longest track, “Washer”, builds on its most rippling, even fragile hooks, the spacious drums filling in as the riffs drift off into space. It’s a song that doesn’t deal in huge breakdowns. It’s all tense build up with no real crescendo. And yet it plays like a tour-de-force, a slow burn song with blistering effect.
Spiderland is full of guitars and bass defined by the space around them. Part of this comes from Britt Walford’s perfect drumming, always intricate but lean. But part of it comes from Brian Paulson’s production. The contrast of sound and negative space is made even starker in these remastered versions, and they make the mostly spoken-word vocals sound even more isolated. Even when McMahan erupts in screaming, which doesn’t happen often, he seems to be shouting from the bottom of some well. If this is post-rock, whatever that might mean, it’s only because it plays with expectations. It’s hard-charging and full of fury and hooks and heavy drums, but it doesn’t seek to fill space. Spiderland is a cragged and gutted-out place, and it’s the dark silence that provides so much power here. This is the trick the band learned and perfected from Tweez to this album. Album outtake “Pam”, included here, clearly shows that lesson. The song is a fiery number, full of muscled guitar hooks and Walford’s most propulsive drums. It’s a song that ties more closely, perhaps, to the louder thunder that Rodan would provide on their classic Rusty in 1994 than it does to anything on Spiderland. Its textures are thick, tensed up, the kind of angry zeal you’d expect from rock music. It shows Slint’s many talents, and the roots they had in populist ideas of what rock music could and should do. But it was when they subverted those rules, when they turned them inside out and made a whole new musical world out of them, that the band made it’s grand statement.
But Spiderland doesn’t define the band or a genre so much as it defines an approach to making music. There’s a reason it doesn’t sound like the band’s other output and why the band’s live take on Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” (included in the box set) feels both awkward and perfect. It’s because the lines between Spiderland and its antecedents—in Slint’s history and musical history more generally—are there, but they are stretched to the breaking point. McMahan would find the tension in the moment where the tether snaps on the even more spacious For Carnation, but Spiderland is light and darkness, loud and quite, expectation and surprise, all clashing against each other in a series of fascination collisions. It’s not an album about origin, but about the moment of impact, how these opposites can in that moment define each other, and only each other. In the same way, Spiderland is full of bracing ideas and deep emotional rifts, but they can’t only serve to define the album. This isn’t a time, or a place, or a group of people. It’s Spiderland. Which, still today, is more than enough.