After the gut-busting emotional hurricane of Harmony in Ultraviolet, An Imaginary Country is a much-needed breather, favoring rich stasis and Zen-like serenity over topsy-turvy drama.
In one sense, we know entirely what we're getting into when we pick up a new Tim Hecker album. It's a heady experience he's been spooning over us ever since he left his Jetone alias in a clicks-n-cuts sarcophagus. The needling, high-pitched keyboards, the gnarled electric guitars, the frayed melodies from unidentifiable sources conglomerating into a monolithic mass. The trilling pianos stuck on one or two notes, doomed to repeat themselves forever. The drones hanging in the air like tightened telephone wires that could rupture at any moment. The tension -- so, so much tension -- that never truly vanishes. The palpable ache of longing. The high and low ends heaving in slow and melancholy synchrony, conveying the notion that tension and longing aren't really all that far apart.
In another sense, each record feels like a novel enough undertaking that only steals glances at what came before it. The Montreal native and sound-art elder statesman has been very careful about not repeating himself from one proper album to the next. For an ambient musician with an instantly identifiable sonic stamp, that's a tall order. The modifications have had less to do with instrumentation and sound, per se, as they do with more systemic things like theme and structure. I don't think anyone was prepared for the gut-busting emotional hurricane of 2006's Harmony in Ultraviolet, for all of Hecker's previous albums being challenging listens, because the narrative was such a force to be reckoned with and took on a monstrous life of its own. Throw it on the player and be summarily catapulted into a terrifying universe of chutes and ladders, buildups and spillovers, tugs, pulsations, and, in the final minutes, cascading catharsis. Two-and-a-half years later, I'm still gasping for breath.
It's damn near impossible to imagine Hecker topping himself after such a colossal statement, and on his first full-length record following Harmony, he doesn't try. In a contrast that seems to become starker by the listen, An Imaginary Country is far less of a roller coaster than it is a travelogue of separate legs through the same patch of territory. Had you been one of the lucky few to snap up his limited 10" Atlas from 2007, you may have had some indication about where he was headed. The two Atlas tracks were long and thick, not moving horizontally or vertically but rather like radial brushes sweeping their immediate areas in a circular motion. All the same, these songs didn't abandon Harmony's gripping intensity, as though Hecker were still flushing it out of his system at this point. If Atlas was necessary for him to conceive An Imaginary Country as it is, wonderful. The album certainly isn't bereft of tension, but here it's considerably more muted and commingles with a Zen-like serenity, making for the most strangely positive recording under Hecker's given name.
It also sounds like the extended breather Hecker figured we needed: a coda that's meant to exist alongside Harmony in Ultraviolet in a particular manner. Harmony began and ended with two versions of the same ominous track, "Rainbow Blood" and "Blood Rainbow", which evoked the outpouring of said blood through layers of trebly drone. In a likely show of twinship, An Imaginary Country begins with "100 Years Ago" and ends with its fleshed-out permutation, "200 Years Ago". These songs are nowhere near the best things Hecker has done, but they're startlingly exultant, and in their way they stanch the flow of rainbow blood and act as signposts proclaiming the album's new direction. Second track "Sea of Pulses" finds comfort in a subaquatic bass bulging warmly beneath ecclesiastical pipe organs. It's a soothing, assuring shift from the roars and scissoring sounds (eep!) of Harmony's second track, "Stags, Aircraft, Kings and Secretaries". "A Stop at Chord Cascades" is Hecker at his most streamlined, balancing his music's typical feelings of yearning with those of contentment. And "Her Black Horizon" is so silky and luxurious, it wouldn't sound terribly out of place wafting through the little Wave speakers in a massage parlor.
It's refreshing to hear Hecker deal with rich stasis over topsy-turvy drama, though the album didn't take immediately and felt underwhelming in my first few passes. It's short -- 48 minutes, roughly the same duration as Hecker's weakest (though still solid) full-length effort, Mirages -- and lacks clear highlights and a center of gravity. Once again, it helps to conceptualize An Imaginary Country as a necessary piece of something larger (it's both a conclusion and a response to Harmony in Ultraviolet) and as a creature unto itself (it's gorgeous, period). The following statements may sound a bit insulting, but they're meant to be just the opposite: An Imaginary Country is Tim Hecker's first truly ambient album since his debut, Haunt Me, in accordance with Brian Eno's original definition of ambient as music that can be enjoyed passively and appreciated upon scrutiny in equal measure. It's verily comfortable existing in the background, but instead of becoming wallpaper, the music fills the container of the room it's played in and settles beautifully into the atmosphere.
What about that title? I keep coming back to it: 'An imaginary country, an imaginary country….' Certainly, the record has a preoccupation with geography, and many of the tracks read like landmarks on a map ("Borderlands", "The Inner Shore", "Paragon Point"). I can also picture it as a continuous trek through the various natural forces of a widespread piece of land. But the human element is so prevalent in all of Hecker's music that it's difficult not to hear it as an extension of the mind and the body anyway. Whether by accident or design, the abstract colored pencil drawing on the album's cover looks as much like cells on a microscope slide as it does the scraggly canyon it was meant to depict. A symbol, perhaps, of the imaginary country inside us, with its brutalizing wars and stretches of relative placidity.
By airing on the side of the latter, Hecker has effectively rounded out his interpretation of the human emotional experience and lent it a sense of completeness. I turn here to "Borderlands", the most heart-rending moment on the disc, as an aural metaphor. All across Hecker's second album, Radio Amor, were the sad sounds of repeating piano notes that never made it successfully through a single bar of music. On "Borderlands" the pianos appear again, but they've composed themselves into the simplest of chord changes that become an entire melody, and they now have the tranquility and quiet strength to say exactly what they need to say.