[6 November 2008]
Over a 15-year career that has outlived nearly all their space-rock peers, Dearborn, Michigan-based ambient duo Windy & Carl have built their music around three constants: universality, honesty, and beauty. Their albums go for big, overarching concepts that reflect some part of the world and the way in which we experience it. Depths, for instance, is about submitting oneself to the forces of nature, as depicted vividly on its cover, and Consciousness is a serene ode to the pleasures of being sentient. But rather than simply work in grand gestures, Windy & Carl make the universal personal and the personal universal, gazing outward for inspiration and recording how it makes them feel in a way that makes sense to us. Their 2005 EP Dedications to Flea may revolve singularly around the passing of the married couple’s beloved pet dog, but the mournful guitar drones and field recordings of Flea go straight to the heart of anyone who has ever lost someone close.
The duo’s honesty, however underappreciated, elevates the music even higher, resulting in a catalogue that sounds as though it doesn’t contain an insincere bone in its body. Recent albums have arrived with poignant and elaborate statements about their reasons for creation; the liner notes to Dedications to Flea, for example, touchingly recalled the life and times of their dog in a staggering amount of detail. Now we have Songs for the Broken Hearted, and it’s seemingly no less purposeful. On the band’s official website, Windy begins her explanation of the new release with, “This is an album about love.” And then she lays it bare: how she went through a “dark time” during recording (which started on the same weekend she began her murky solo album, I Hate People) and left the tapes off the reels to rot until Carl rescued them, how the songs consistently made her cry before she could even write the lyrics, how the album shifted from straight-up sadness to an aural documentation of the way love works, in its high peaks and low, low valleys. As the duo’s discography has taken on an increasingly elegiac tone, the idea of an album with heartbreak as a central motif fits snugly into their trajectory.
And it isabout heartbreak—far more so, I think, than it is about love in the simplistic Valentine’s Day sense. Windy & Carl understand that to make an album personal is to make it real, and the instances of love in Songs for the Broken Hearted are beset by the unmistakable tension of knowing that everything could fall apart in an instant. Leadoff track “Btwn You + Me” reflects this state of being. Multiple lines of guitar ambience—some becalmed, some ominous—blend into an emotionally ambiguous cloud as Windy whispers something into our ear that’s below our level of comprehension. Before we can figure out whether the words she just told us were good or bad, “La Douleur” (“The Pain”) does the job for her: It’s over ten minutes of dolorous catharsis, with a high-pitched guitar wailing into the void. “My Love”, the track following, is the calm after the storm. It has the feel of black satin, of love enshrouded by an almost gothic mysteriousness, and though it was released as a single earlier in 2008 it works incredibly well in this context.
Just about any of these tracks could have been singles, really, in that they’re superlative examples of the form, but what makes Songs for the Broken Hearted stand out in Windy & Carl’s discography is its impeccable pacing. There are thickly layered ambient suites (“When We Were”), Flying Saucer Attack-style space-rock ballads (“Forever”), and happy mediums between the two (“Snow Covers Everything”), clocking in at runtimes from two-and-a-half minutes to almost 13. The path they follow has been clearly plotted out, the way Tim Hecker might have done it, for maximum impact. When the album’s only joyous moment arrives (“Snow Covers Everything”) eight tracks in, it seems to serve as a reward for enduring the rest of the album’s emotional upheaval. The song’s peaceful guitars wrap around the ears like a warm blanket, while wind chimes and glockenspiel emulate falling snowflakes and Windy sings in a voice that’s uncommonly clear and—possibly for the first time in the duo’s history—free. Yet its title and strange placement within the sequence suggest an impermanent coating; when the ice melts we’re left with, quite literally, “The Same Moon and Stars”, a track that contains the same conflicted emotional mixture as the one on the record’s other end.
I don’t have to tell you that the third constant, beauty, is here on Songs for the Broken Hearted full stop. What’s remarkable about this, of course, is that Windy & Carl haven’t changed their cloud-drift instrumental approach since they first picked up their equipment. (The final track on their 1994 debut, “Through the Portal”, doesn’t sound particularly out of touch in 2008.) But as beautiful as the album is, it’s not easy to listen to casually. Upon finding out that Songs for the Broken Hearted references Windy & Carl’s own broken hearts, their personal struggle with the way in which love waxes and wanes between them, everything clicks. We hear, once again, the sound of the musicians’ external world becoming internalized as emotion, then beamed outward for droves of listeners to appreciate. Writing a love song is easy; millions have done it, and love is by some margin the most frequently referenced subject in popular music. But few artists are so perceptive that they can capture love’s terrifying complexity, so honest that they can give us a glimpse inside themselves to understand it, and so brave that nowhere on an album about love can they offer us a resolution.