For an artist who has stuck resolutely to a particular sound and genre, Matthew Cooper’s work as Eluvium shows a commendably broad range. Within the triangulation points of ambient warmth, steady drone, and pointillist, emotive piano playing Cooper has touched on everything from Fennesz-style fuzz to sci-fi tinged string arrangements to even, on 2010’s fine Similes, a little bit of singing. It’s a credit to Cooper’s gifts as a performer, arranger, and composer that his reluctance to repeat himself feels unmistakably like a restless, creative intelligence rather than any sort of lack of focus. We may or may not ever get another Eluvium album that sounds like the solo piano excursion of An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death or the extended, enveloping 50-minute composition Static Nocturne, but each feels equally and exactly like, well, an Eluvium album.
It’s not surprising, then, that the deck-clearing double album Nightmare Ending brings all of these strands together without ever feeling like a patchwork. Cooper originally started work on these tracks after 2007’s Copia, his most magisterial work to date, partly in an effort to get himself away from what he calls his “self-imposed ideals of perfection”. It’s true that we’re all quicker to spot the flaws in our own work than anyone else is, but it’s hard for the outside observer to spot any more flaws in the songs here than in Copia or any other of Cooper’s releases. And while he claims he’s labelled each track as either a “dream” or an “imperfection”, my review copy doesn’t make clear which is which. If that distinction was immediately clear upon listening, and if Cooper’s ideals were necessary to the success of his work, I’d be able to tell you that Nightmare Ending is a worthy but flawed release that ought to have been pared down to a tighter one-disc release. But as it is, I’m not sure exactly what you would excise, and why.
Instead of a mix between worthy and unworthy (and given how long Cooper has been working at this release, who knows how much the final results jibe with that initial framework), Nightmare Ending seems more like a tour through the different modes of Eluvium; opener “Don’t Get Any Closer” recalls the beautifully droning uplift of Talk Amongst the Trees while “Caroling” brings to mind An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death. “Impromptu (For the Procession)” and “Covered in Writing” evoke the gleaming heights of Copia while Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan singspeaks on the closing “Happiness” in a way that’s not that far from Cooper’s own vocals on Similes. That’s not to say that these tracks are derivative of past Eluvium songs; just that, for the first time, Cooper seems as interested in exploring the areas he’s already charted. The results are just as strong as before without ever sounding like a rehash.
There are a few places where Nightmare Ending adds new shades to Cooper’s palette. He works with Explosions in the Sky’s Mark T. Smith on “Envenom Mettle” to achieve a type of crescendo that’s a nice hybrid of the two acts, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him marry his warm, enshrouding drones with the kind of chunking, trainlike rhythm found on “By the Rails” (even if that title is a little on the nose). But mostly Nightmare Ending serves as an impressive, simultaneously broad and cohesive reminder and restatement of all the sides of Cooper’s work as Eluvium. The result actually makes for one of the best introductions to all the sides of Cooper’s work, even as it’s a wonderful banquet for fans. Cooper’s work on Nightmare Ending is both a look back (marking the resurrection of a once-abandoned project) and a look forward (“towards a less creatively constraining mindset”), one that stands as a capstone on his work to date. From here Cooper could do almost anything next; all we can really predict is that it will sound like Eluvium, and it will be wonderful.