Spiderland: The Experience of Sleep

Jonathan Gerber

In an uncanny way, Spiderland expresses our experience of sleep and musically contains all of its characteristics as noted by sleep researchers, moving from the uplifting and bizarre logic of dreams through to the possible psychosis that sleep resembles, while on the way touching on its sensory and restorative aspects.



Label: Touch & Go
US Release Date: 2010-03-27
UK Release Date: Import

Slint’s Spiderland is possibly the least understood yet most influential album of the last 20 years. Every aspect of Spiderland, from its cover to its lyrics, from its timbre to its musical structures, suggests that the album is about sleep. In an uncanny way, Spiderland expresses our experience of sleep and musically contains all of its characteristics as noted by sleep researchers, moving from the uplifting and bizarre logic of dreams through to the possible psychosis that sleep resembles, while on the way touching on its sensory and restorative aspects.

“Breadcrumb Trail” opens the album with a wash of emptiness. It breezes in on a simple 7/4 guitar figure, half-echoed gently by the second guitar. Where usually we would expect counterpoint or reinforcement, we instead have a second guitar playing the wispiest of figures. The music is less than we expect. The song builds and ebbs, but throughout it has a curiously restrained quality. This negative, economical quality is present in Spiderland from the first riff and continues throughout, whether it is the clean production, the lack of cymbals in songs like “Nosferatu Man”, the lack of defined melodies, the lack of volume, the precise economy of the instrumentation and songwriting, or the slow tempos. Most of the musical choices in Spiderland are about playing less. Sleep, too, is noted for its “negative quality in behavior functioning” -- it is “emptiness subtracted from the fullness of our lives”. The music of Spiderland creates emptiness. Just like sleep, Spiderland always subtracts.

The rhythms of “Breadcrumb Trail” also suggest sleep. All rhythms have a bodily component. For example, Nelson Riddle likened swing to a heartbeat on a brisk walk. In the case of Spiderland, the irregularity of the 7/4 opening figure perfectly mirrors the irregular breathing that sleep researchers have noted is characteristic of sleep and, in particular, dreaming.

It should be no surprise then that “Breadcrumb Trail”, with its economical playing and dreamlike rhythms, recounts a dream. The song retells a dream in a fairground using the extraordinarily vivid and primarily visual language of dreams. We see “this small, old tent... it was blue & had white lights hanging all around it” and “a girl wearing a hat” going on a ferris wheel. The music also is vivid in its crystalline guitars and incisive drums. Note: the music is not dreamy -- it is hard and visceral, submerging the narrative beneath pure sensory experience. We don’t initially hear the vocals, we feel the music. The climbing, evolving, irregular music gives us the experience of dreaming while the submerged lyrics reinforce that experience.

Contrary to our usual preconceptions of Slint, “Nosferatu Man” continues to explore the positive aspects of sleep, recounting a dream of hallucinatory moral suspension. The singer believes he has become a vampire and describes himself as “a prince”. He chases his queen to “her early grave”, his “teeth touch(ing) her skin” and then “keeps her warm”. But there is no sense that this strange behaviour has a moral dimension -- the music is amoral, reflecting the suspension of morality that often occurs in dreams.

“Nosferatu Man” also relays the time compression and time expansion characteristic of dreams. That is, that dreams move from scene to scene effortlessly and can also take longer than real life. The music itself is compressed and then expanded, reflecting the unnatural flow of time in dreams. Time expansion is seen best in the way the highly compressed rhythm of the last two beats of the B section riff (at 2:34 and sung to “railed on through the night”) is expanded into an almost time-signature-less ‘thrash’ section from 2:46 to 4:58. We see time compression in the seamless shifts between parts and sections. The music both comes from nowhere and develops with its own logic, shifting elegantly between musical scenes to create the atmosphere of dreams.

Dreams are certainly a common feature of sleep, so Spiderland is not unusual in focussing considerable time on the experience of dreaming. But sleep is more than dreaming -- there are other feelings and experiences related to sleep. In “Don, Aman”, Spiderland’s focus shifts to shows that sleep can help crystallise thought patterns. Some sleep researchers believe that sleep is processing time, a downtime for the brain to sort through the previous day's events. The first half of “Don, Aman” relays the events of a night using ponderous, almost uncertain music. This is followed by a section of repeated strummed chords, which themselves sort and process the previous chords, reflecting the sleep's processing properties. At the end of this section, we hear that “Don woke up and looked at the night before, he knew what to do”. The music in this section is slightly more cohesive and simple, as though the sorting out of the previous section had removed the uncertainty of the first half of the song. The music of sleep has brought clarity. Being asleep has shown him the solution.

An unusual thing happens at this point in the album, noted only if we take seriously Slint’s request to listen to the album on vinyl. We flip the record and enter a new world of sleep. While Side One showed the positive aspects of sleep, on Side Two we begin to sink into sleep's darkness.

“Washer” is the album’s most straightforward song about sleep. It explicitly references sleep in the lyrics: “Good night, my love / Remember me as you fall asleep”. This song expresses the fear of losing things in sleep and the death-like nature of sleep (“Don’t let this desperate moonlight leave me with your empty pillow”). The music itself is fearful and sad, reflecting sleep's essential loss. While the singer may have additional reasons for sensing loss in sleep, the sadness and fear of the music reflects the real loss we all experience as part of sleep: that we lose six years of our lives sleeping, and that many people pass away during sleep. However, the singer also acknowledges that in sleep he is “safe from harm”. Sleep in “Washer”, and at this point in the album, is both loss and protection.

The music of “For Dinner…” reflects sleep's push and pull, the semi-submerged state a sleeper exists in between environment monitoring and sensory deprivation. When we are asleep we are often ready to be woken up by noises, but also insensible until we are woken. “For Dinner…” mimics this semi-submerged state by having the music exist just below audible levels. In fact, the cover of Spiderland reflects sleep’s pull between wakefulness and sensory deprivation by depicting a band half-submerged between air and water.

But just how far submerged will this sleep take us? How dark are the deepest depths of sleep? “Washer’s” lyrics and “For Dinner…”’s sonics introduce the possibility of being lost beneath sleep’s waters, but the endpoint of this journey is seen in “Good Morning, Captain”, the album’s climax.

According to Freud, sleep causes anxiety because it allows a return of the repressed. Dreams are phenomenologically close to psychosis, and “Good Morning, Captain” shares all the typical features of psychosis. Nowhere else on this album does the music seem so tense and conflicted, building from clear chords to jagged walls of noise. “Good Morning, Captain” lurches between restraint in the verses and inexplicable bursts of anguish (i.e. the distorted sections and ending) with the picked guitar before each distorted chord ushering in the descent from sanity to insanity. The drums and bass pound on simply and relentlessly as the music succumbs to madness. It all seems to represent thought disorder, being long, repetitive, having uneven fills and an unsteady beat. “Good Morning, Captain” also displays the inappropriate affect of psychosis. The outburst of longing for the captain at the end (“I miss you”) is particularly surprising given the singer previously “pulled down the shade” to ignore the captain. Dreams and psychosis are hallucinatory, represented musically by hypnotic repetition and lyrically by identity confusion, where the start of the song is from the perspective of the captain, while the latter is from the perspective of the child. The music of “Good Morning, Captain” engulfs us, taking us down the rabbit hole, inducing the fear within us all of not knowing who we are or whether we are awake. “Good Morning, Captain” shows us that dreams can truly drive us mad.

It’s here, paradoxically, that the mythology of mental illness associated with the making of Spiderland is given the greatest weight. Slint submerged themselves so far into the psychotic aspects of sleep that the myth of checking themselves into mental institutions makes sense. Sleep is madness.

On reaching the end of the album, Spiderland does not leave us with any comfort or respite from the psychosis of sleep. Rather, it leaves us exposed to the horrors that sleep might bring, and it’s in this revelation that Spiderland makes its largest contribution. While others might sing about night and sleep, Spiderland gives us the experience of sleep.

Far from random rambling narratives with off-kilter music, Spiderland is a precise exploration of sleep. It shows the logic of dreams ("Breadcrumb Trail", "Nosferatu Man", "Good Morning Captain"), the clarity sleep brings ("Don, Aman"), and the fears of sleep (all of Side Two) in ways that no music has done before or since. Even more, Spiderland gives us the experience of sleep. The album doesn’t make rookie errors like trying to portray all the stages of sleep in total, because we don’t consciously experience them all. What we experience is falling asleep ("Washer"), dreams ("Breadcrumb Trail", "Nosferatu Man", "Good Morning, Captain"), the pull between sleep and waking ("For Dinner"), and the clarifying nature of sleep ("Don, Aman"). Spiderland gives us just the experiences and feelings of sleep.

Spiderland matters today because we all still sleep, and this album captures what this is like. Albini was horribly wrong -- it’s not about the production, it’s not about the innovation. Post-rock was wrong -- it’s not about the techniques, it’s not about the soft-loud dynamic. The value of Spiderland is in how it encapsulates the effects of sleep and allows us to reflect on that strange necessity in a new form.

But what of the title? Where or what is Spiderland? Perhaps sleep researcher Wilse B. Webb put it best in Sleep: An Experimental Approach (Macmillan & Co, 1968): “Much of the awe evoked by a consideration of sleep, however, undoubtedly stems from its peculiar relationship to consciousness. Where am I when I am asleep and when I am not consciously relating to this world? Where was I when I recalled those strange and bizarre thoughts and scenes in dreams?”

Where am I when I sleep? In a land of horrors: in Spiderland.

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