That music is a clearing house for an artist’s emotions hardly comes as any revelation. It’s an accepted part of the formula, and a large part of the reason we bother to listen. So stories of break-ups and angst, love and longing, lust and loss are all to be expected.
But music as true catharsis, as a raw and stripped-bare wound that the artist holds up to the light for the listener to absorb, willingly or not… this is a rare experience. Sure, you can write a beautiful song about the death of a loved one, or the joy of discovering a soul-shattering love, but once you’ve taken that sensation and applied a pattern of rhythm and rhyme to it, set it to a fitting melody, and perfected a delivery that is as musical as it is evocative, you’ve created a bit of artifice that is relatively removed from the actual experience of that emotion. That’s not a criticism, though. This is necessary for music to have the reach to straddle the line between the personally meaningful and universal appeal. But true catharsis — the gut-wrenching primal scream that vomits pure emotional sludge onto tape in an attempt to expose and express the unfiltered mess of the internal landscape — well, that’s rare.
And yet it’s the best way to understand what Max Wood, the adolescent cut’n’paste artist who goes by the name of Applied Communications, is trying to do with Uhhh Sort Of. Wood, who is only 18 and here releasing his second album, has taken the sound collage of his music to an intensely personal and direct level, following up a debut album (Africa Baby, Yeah Yeah Yeah) that critics hailed as engaging and important, but which Wood himself claims was fluff and filled with aimlessness and superficial ideas. In an attempt to combat what Wood saw as his own weaknesses, he’s shifted his focus on Uhhh Sort Of to questioning art and life and the ability to use his chosen medium to express anything real. That alone would be hardly revolutionary, but there’s a dual life inside this album that gives it an eerie shade of something wholly different: namely, the ghost of Wood’s recently departed mother, who raised him alone and whose passing has left him an orphan.
Listening to adolescent confusion played out against the anguished pain of someone who lost their only parent at a young age is a trying task. Described this way, it conjures up images of goth poetry and LiveJournal excess. But Wood is fairly accomplished for his age, and willing to ask questions that have some depth, even as he draws the line between existential crisis and his own dirty laundry. His stream-of-conscious wordplay is Beck-like in its imagery, interspersed with a number of breaks for spoken-word diatribes, and delivered in a nasally flat pattern that actually highlights the blunt nature of the concepts. The rambling psychobabble of “Do You Know What I’m Saying?” might stand in contrast to “I Want a Famous Face” — where Wood stops and plain-spokenly delivers a rant beginning, “In general, popular music brings nothing new to the human experience. Despite quality, or lack thereof, it’s circular in nature and should be boring to us all.” — if it weren’t for the fact that the traipsing imagery of the former and the didactic proclamations of the latter weren’t scrambled and scattered through the entire disc.
Similarly, the music is a barrage of sounds, beats, and sheer noise jammed together in a way that makes the tracks feel like a suitcase full of junk stuffed to bursting. The album begins with a guitar twang and Wood saying “I don’t know how to play any instruments” in a short loop, but the whole of Uhhh Sort Of is packed with instrumental sounds; the opening statement merely used to foreground Wood’s role as a collage artist. Unlike his efforts on Africa Baby, the tracks here take a jigsaw to melody and rhythm and create a cacophonous mess to frame his disjointed observations on art and life, but they most clearly highlight the emotional and psychological distress at confronting the specter of his dead mother, who literally bursts forth time and again as the silent partner in a conversation.
The problem with listening to this cathartic release, however, is that it’s not an appeal to the listener’s own feelings. As much as the blunt and brutal emotion can evoke sympathy, it can never really produce empathy. This is Max Wood revealed, and it’s all about Wood, with little room for listener interaction beyond the dry intellectual engagement with his commentary about art and authentic living. In essence, it’s beyond critical thinking, and difficult to evaluate on any level. If the musical squall doesn’t appeal — and it’s certainly challenging to standard pop/rock tastes, though it fits into the mode of other sound collage work — then it can be excused for its emulation of its emotional foundation. If the lyrical challenge to art and meaning in music is pretentious, then it’s undercut by the cathartic release of feelings, perhaps nowhere more so than in “Point Oh Seven”, where Wood loops and repeats “I have a point / I have to live / I cannot die” over a humming drone for five minutes of a ten-minute track until it becomes an all-consuming mantra, battering the listener into submission.
In total, it’s not hard to see why the critics who’ve stumbled on Applied Communications have been fascinated. Wood is bold beyond his years, and his brand of direct engagement is brave. But in both his past work and the unreleased work following this album available on his website, there’s still the frame of musicality to cling to. However, evaluated on its own terms, Uhhh Sort Of is static vivisection — hard to stomach, but even harder to turn away from.