Jandek: Glasgow Sunday

[15 June 2005]

By Rob Horning

Over a span of 27 years, a musician known only as Jandek has released 40 albums in all without ever establishing a public identity. He never performed publicly and released no details about his personal life, including his name or whereabouts. His record label, Corwood Industries, seems to exist only to release Jandek albums, and has no physical plant beyond a Houston post-office box. All that has ever been known about him, as Seth Tisue notes on his extremely comprehensive Jandek website, is that nobody know anything at all about him. What differentiates Jandek from the countless nobodies who are likely now recording their own masterpieces as a hobby in bedrooms and basements all over the world is the complete commitment he makes to his approach, which seems to have no audience in mind and no relation to any trends in commercial music ever to have surfaced.

Jandek’s approach is idiosyncratic to say the least: No chords or melodies; he speaks a musical language that has few words in it, and no grammar. What’s amazing is the varying levels of intensity his music uncovers; his records delineate more degrees of sadness then you ever thought existed. Put any of his albums on and you are immediately transported to a utterly alien sonic universe devoid of any familiar anchoring points from which you can begin to relate it to what you already know. His voice, haunted and forlorn, equally prone to moan, whisper or shout, is usually saturated in echo, making it sound as though he’s singing from inside a sensory-deprivation tank.

Don’t try listening to Jandek with other people, because you’ll inevitably break into nervous and embarrassed giggles to shield yourself from the enormity and the near-obscene intimacy of what you’re hearing. Not that it’s lewd; it’s just spiritually naked, as disconcerting as suddenly eavesdropping on the voices in someone else’s head. Accordingly, Jandek is best listened to on headphones, preferably at night, and preferably while walking through deserted streets. Because his music challenges every assumption about why people make music and why people listen to it (he demonstrates no musical talent, he has no interest in fame or money, and he has no apparent interest in being in any way entertaining), it forces you to a zero degree of musical comprehension—all the prejudices and preferences you may have accumulated over the years are suddenly wiped away because they simply don’t apply here. Some people find this terrifying; being cast into an entirely unpredictable world without rules, where all your assumptions are wrong or moot, is pretty much analogous to being driven insane. Others find this strangely liberating. Listening to Jandek can have a purifying effect: it washes your ears clean so you can really hear other music again.

Because Jandek’s music is so intensely subjective, because it’s so thorough a rejection of the music that’s familiar and easily consumable, listeners are confronted with their own subjectivity to a degree that can be startling. You realize what you bring to listening, and how far you are willing to be challenged, how much you are willing to pay attention to what’s there. We hear normal music everywhere; we are so saturated with it, it’s almost impossible to hear. But Jandek is unthinkable until you hear him—and if you care anything at all about music as a form of the individual spirit holding out against the increasing conformity and commodification of all aspects of life, you’ll want to hear him.

But everything anybody ever knew about Jandek changed on October 17, 2004, when he made a completely unexpected maiden voyage out of the realm of total obscurity and onto a Glasgow stage, playing his first ever concert at the Instal festival, documented on this disc. Of course, there was no indication that he would be playing beforehand, he would identify himself only as a “representative from Corwood Industries”, and no one in the audience had any idea who he was when he began to play.

For the cadre of hardcore record-store loiterers and outsider-art aficionados and wayward music writers who constitute Jandek’s fan base, that he has played live at all is both astounding and troubling. His appearance on stage after so many years of preserving total anonymity is beyond stunning; that Jandek now seems to be in the midst of a UK tour is tantamount to J.D. Salinger deciding to suddenly do a round of Barnes & Noble book-signing events. And now that Jandek has played live performances, his mystique is a bit tarnished—his absolute refusal to pander to any audience is one of the things that made his actual audience feel special. Much of the feel of Jandek’s music derived from the insuperable barrier he maintained between him and his audience, the way his songs seemed like dark matter issued from the far side of a black hole. His performances on album are so deeply involuted that the idea of watching someone onstage reenacting them is vaguely shameful, like watching an autistic throw tantrums. But now that he’s made several appearances before crowds, he seems somehow reduced; no longer inscrutable in a cosmic, epistemological sense, he’s just another garden-variety avant-garde musician with no mainstream recognition.

Accompanied for the first time by recognizably accomplished musicians—Richard Youngs on bass and Alex Neilson on drums - Glasgow Sunday is without doubt Jandek’s most accessible album to date, the first one that’s readily assimilated to other rock music you might have heard. The rhythm section, improvising reactively to Jandek, with whom they rehearsed once, used deep rumbling bass notes (sounding as if bowed) and intricate percussive pattering on an assortment of cymbals and a snare, evoking the cloudless vistas of the Dirty Three or Can at its most meandering. And Jandek’s slashing, discordant electric-guitar playing is like Andy Gill’s at its most abstract, like loose cables sparking at high speeds on cement. Even that waking nightmare of Jandek’s singing voice—the moaning wail from the edge of the void, the sound of total desolation and spiritual immolation, at once manic and morose—sounds fuller, richer, a touch less ineffable. That he’s clearly among a roomful of people does a lot to take the edge off; you don’t have that same sense that he’s paused to sing his last song before crawling off to slit his throat as you sometimes would with his previous work.

At the performance captured on Glasgow Sunday Jandek declines to reprise any songs from his canon—not even the oft-rerecorded “European Jewel or “message to the Clerk”—and presents all new material instead. The new material reflects nothing of his sudden extroversion: In “Where I Stay” he relates that “There’s only this room / Where I stay / I stare at objects / But I don’t see them.” Also included is a love song shot through with religious overtones a la St. John of the Cross (“Darkness You Give”), a few bleak meditations on death (“Not Even Water” and “Sea of Red”), a few darkly humorous blues numbers (“Real Wild”, “The Other Side”), and a quintessential Jandekian exploration of how everyday life can be shot through with vertiginous despair (“Blue, Blue World”).

Whether Glasgow Sunday is ideal for Jandek newcomers is debatable. Because of its relative accessibility, it is entirely uncharacteristic, providing a totally misleading impression of how the rest of his catalog sounds. It’s best to consider this string of live performances as another unexpected chapter in a musical career that has already seen several acoustic phases, a spastic electric phase, a truly spooky a capella period, and a recent phase where he played only the double-bass. Though Jandek has come closer to conventional music than anyone would have thought possible a decade ago, he remains a traveler on his own unfathomable road. May we never know where he’s going.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jandek-glasgow/