Love is a symbol; words are too hard. On Cerulean, Baths’ Will Wiesenfeld got closest to capturing the warmth of romance when he was emoting from hiding places, in the way he might see fit to respond to the flattery of a Facebook fan — think typed heart emoticons, but as a song. Explaining how he felt was harder; his emotions came as loops of samples, as unlikely lines in meaningful movies. The chorus to “Maximalist” was given reference by a scene he was formally restating, letting someone other than himself ask “What’s love telling me to do, right now?” and leaving that question to fill the pores of a song glitching to its truths. One of the cuts on Pop Music sampled Kiki’s Delivery Service to see if the world would exhale around it, or if the scenes its protagonist found marvelous would look the same if they were invisible. For all its warmth, Wiesenfeld’s early music expressed the inexpressible. It gave us romance, awkwardly, or feelings, indirectly. Feeling anything in an early Baths album was a workout, as cut into pieces as sounds keyed into an AKAI MPD pad. Only occasionally did we hear him raw; when we did, he said “please”. He said “fuck”.
The dialect Wiesenfeld is speaking on Obsidian is the “fuck” expounded, an extension of the cold snap “Lovely Bloodflow” provided on Wiesenfeld’s debut. From the moment it begins, the record is inflicted, seething to its dark, bloodthirsty conclusions about love. These songs reflect the misery Wiesenfeld was hinting at on his Boiler Room set last year — he announced he was going to do a song “1997 emo rock, mic in hand”, invoking ghosts of a hyper-emotional past — but get a morbid sense of jubilance from them. They struggle between cleansing old demons and setting them on fire, as numbed by first boyfriends as they are erotic about disengaged fucking. Wiesenfeld is right to fall into crowds and hardcore dance with these songs, to get a thrill out of the bright, sharp synths of “No Eyes” as a way of forgetting about the song’s cold, desensitizing facts (“it is only a matter of come and fuck me”, he howls, but it may as well be a shrug). He gets down to emptiness, or else sways to it; “Scared of how little I care for you”, he sings on “Incompatible”, a song so subdued you feel its fright in nothing. Obsidian is the dark record it was billed as because it starts to ask its own uncomfortable questions. Love becomes more illusory when it stops getting quoted.
Wiesenfeld seems to scratch his polemic side for these songs, focusing on isolating his songcraft. Obsidian is a self-sufficient synth-pop record in the vein of the Postal Service’s Give Up, ploughing through its songs and laying his beats as paths for stories. In the same way “Such Great Heights” relies on an unobtrusive (but irresistible) beat to deliver an anthemic pop song, it’s Wiesenfeld ’s voice that dominates proceedings on these songs, ripping through their interiors and letting them fall apart with him. As he growls “come and fuck me” one final time on “No Eyes”, the song falls into a gritty, harsh resolution that buries its light, compact sound underneath. Even at highest pitch, his “la la la”s are piercing rather than inviting. It seems like no small coincidence Wiesenfeld was brought on tour with his heroes, this record bringing him closer to them than ever, but Obsidian also proves Wiesenfeld will never make his own “Such Great Heights”. The Postal Service can make that song inclusive, but on a Baths record it would sound sinister, a rumination on the falling but not on the togetherness.
For a record tightly knit around fresh wounds, it’s understandable that Obsidian has moments of disrepair. “No Past Lives” is sliced down the middle, a burnt out track that would have moved thrillingly through the ever-permeating Cerulean, but here cuts into a record that gains pace rapidly and blazes a trail on its way. The brief and repeating piano phrase serves its song like a concerto, dumping Wiesenfeld from the picture and appealing only, really, as an experiment. The two tracks beside “No Past Lives” are engulfing, making large strides over terrain Wiesenfeld transparently describes (“come kill me”, he beckons on “Earth Death”), and between them this emptying, sparse track seems like one of his symbolic gestures, treating a specific moment as a way of explaining the ineffable.
Obsidian can repeat and whirr onward in that way, mulling over dark corners of personal tragedies, but aside from “No Past Lives”, it never circulates. The desire to make pop songs has been complementary to the self-referential songwriting Wiesenfeld has chosen to do, his choruses able to reinforce disdain, exemplify arousal as it grows and grows, or feel around until the sensation hits. “Incompatible” is about the ghost his first boyfriend has left behind, and its repetition of one, ambiguous refrain — “Fail your maiden voyage” — haunts the places this love story has existed, seeking to exorcise past memories rather than keep them around as trinkets. (“You know this is never your home”, Wiesenfeld hums, furthering the album’s attempt at baptism.) The album’s obvious single, “Miasma Sky”, impressed on me the sense of inertia Wiesenfeld has claimed to feel in older Baths material. Its changes are dramatic, trying to shift into different frames of mind and then come back down to its base quietly and serenely, like the unsoiled IDM Boards of Canada might make. These moments aren’t grandly felt, but they feed into the high tension of Obsidian’s confessions. It’s an album about the ominous quiet of memories existing only in the moment, and an attempt to trace and destroy the ones that torture the mind. This time, Wiesenfeld takes them on himself.