Or Give Me Death, Aqueduct’s second full-length, is a difficult piece of work. It is both bold and timid, both dark and light, both tight and sprawling. Aqueduct, made up of Seattle’s David Terry, seems to avoid pigeon-holing and genre-labeling in ways no recent releases have been able to. It is almost frustrating how completely Terry eludes classification with this disc (his second on Barsuk Records) through a series of tracks full of opposing styles and tones. From start to finish, each number is melodic (yet dissonant) and melancholy (yet hopeful), but all are refreshingly innovative.
Terry brings a host of sonic textures to the album through vocals, piano, strings, drums, and synths. He fits elements together that, at first, don’t seem entirely compatible. On the opening “Lying in the Bed I’ve Made”, a repeating piano phrase and solar synthesizer lines meld with chopped-up drums that flow into a chorus filled with warm guitars and a sort of surprising beauty. All of this is utterly gorgeous. The challenge for the listener begins as soon as track two; Terry moves on to “Living a Lie”, more touched by pop punk than anything else, as he chants “It’s not living a lie / If you’re not living at all / You’re setting me up / And I’m taking the fall” over power chords. But it is not that simple — wandering electronics and zooming synths heighten the track to something completely different. Terry’s voice is not particularly outstanding on its own, but when coupled with the hook-drenched melodies of a song like “Broken Records”, the energy-level suddenly doubles. The musical ideas here are unexpected, varied, and, on first listen, almost random. But the piano remains constant throughout, and a certain commonality is obtained somehow, even through random explosions of sound and color.
Throughout the album, the ears are presented a choice as to which influence they would like to pick out from Aqueduct’s sound: the pounding Ben Folds-like piano heard on tracks such as “Keep It Together”, the electronic stylings of Of Montreal in “Zero the Controls”, or the pained struggle of fuzzy, orchestrated rock ala “King’s Crossing”-esque Elliott Smith on the aching “Wasted Energy”. The influences heard on this disc are numerous, but never too prominent; instead they are subtle and welcome, and seem to act as a snapshot of all the best bits of music that David Terry has ever heard. Or Give Me Death is like a snapshot of pop music history, transformed and altered by the seemingly limitless musical brain of Aqueduct.
Some elements here do not quite make sense, and the record is not altogether congruous. But it doesn’t need to be. A sudden punch of trumpet enters on “Just the Way I Are” and then quickly leaves, serving its purpose. What is its purpose? We don’t know, and we don’t care. The point is that our ears agree, even when our brain does not. On “Wasted Energy”, the disc’s most powerful cut, ideas are patchworked together, but seamlessly so. Half angry, half exhausted lines like “I hear you hesitate to answer / You won’t respond to me / Tried all forms of correspondence / Seems silence is the key” are frighteningly intimate and human, and yet the fragile lyrics are set over fierce electric guitar, mechanical cymbals, and electronic tremolos. No other song so accurately presents the genius of this record: contrast. Contrast between lo- and hi-fi, between old and new, between exposed and secretive. The disc shows us how genuine human emotion can be effectively paired with completely inhuman sounds when done well. Terry takes the robotic-like themes of “Zero the Controls” and unflinchingly releases them alongside the rolling orchestrations of a track like “Unavailable”, singing earnest, tragic phrases like, “Given that I have none to give / I need your love”. The closing “With Friends Like These” is ultimately the most satisfying track on Or Give Me Death. This song is an accurate representation of the rest of the album: it is pop, it is rock, it is modern, it is primitive, it is familiar, it is fresh, and all of these things at once.
American patriot Patrick Henry spoke, “Give me liberty, or give me death”, choosing dying over living in slavery. The same could be said of music as of living; if it is not authentic, then what is the point? Ultimately, Aqueduct’s music is human. This disc is not always cohesive. But it is most certainly a genuine piece of art. Given a choice between the two, I will always choose the latter.