The peculiar title of Benoît Pioulard’s latest album gives the impression that it could be some kind of best-of collection. It isn’t, but The Benoît Pioulard Listening Matter could stand in as a succinct summation of Thomas Meluch’s charismatic melding of dream-folk, field recordings, and sandwashed atmospheres.
The completion of The Benoît Pioulard Listening Matter has been trailed by poignant timing and tragic coincidence. Meluch’s first album for Kranky, Précis, was released ten years earlier, nearly to the day. His brother, for whom the record is dedicated, passed away on the same day that it was finished. Listening Matter’s mood is not easily read. Its pleasure and melancholy are both wary. Meluch being a photographer as well, several of his Polaroids serve as the album art. There’s surely some reflection of the music to be drawn from the cover image; a fish eye mirror on a dark weathered wall, offering a detached and bent view of a beautiful day.
Starting with Sonnet in 2015, Benoît Pioulard has let loose an outpouring of ambient releases. There was Stanza, a companion to the Sonnet LP, Stanza II, the Noyaux EP put out by Morr Music, and the tour EP Thine. This past June he released the Radial EP, which featured an ‘interpretation’ of the Aphex Twin song “Stone in Focus”, to help pay for medical bills he incurred breaking his wrist while hiking in the Cascade foothills near North Bend, Washington.
Listening Matter swings back toward the singer-songwriter yin to Meluch’s structure-averse yang, a mode he hasn’t dwelled much in since Hymnal in 2013. Working again with Benoît Pioulard here is Rafael Anton Irisarri, who mastered the album at Black Knoll Studio in New York. Along with being the go-to guy for completing his own music, Irisarri is a composer with whom Meluch collaborates as Orcas. The duo’s stunning, underappreciated second album, Yearling, is a standout in both of their bodies of work.
Opening euphoric gust “Initials B.P.” is both a clearing of the throat and a girding of the loins. Outside the door lay a progression of perils to face down. “Narcologue” wastes no time, cutting into time and distance’s grip on love: “But this freezing of the heart / Is a shameful shuttering born of being apart / With numbness but in command / My senescence proves we hold together like sand”. Addiction lurks in “Layette”, which begins with the admission, “In a matter of time / I’ll slowly burn through my vices / Cos when I level with them / They still put me through my paces”.
The elated melody of the brief but voluble “Anchor as the Muse” belies its sense of futility. Nearly halfway in and there’s still no resolution in sight on “I Walked Into the Blackness and Built a Fire”: “So I will give chase / The back roads are clearer than before / But mist is in pace / And I can’t see the paths anymore”. Not to overstate the point, but after going practically speechless since Sonnet, Meluch has a lot to get off his chest here. He also gives himself a narrow window in which to do it; a baker’s dozen of future-past pop songs etched onto water-warped tape that average in length somewhere in the two-minute range.
Contradictions being key to the album’s balance, it is only natural that Listening Matter’s greatest moment of levity comes wrapped in cataclysm. On “The Sun Is Going to Explode But Whatever It’s OK”, each successive verse is an eloquent capture of a different thought or perspective in the context of the end of it all; a couple of the sentimental kind, but most of the ‘oh well’ variety. “Oh in the great conflagration of the universe / The sun is going to fucking explode/It doesn’t help to block it with your hand / So just tremble with the ruptures in the land”. It’s the “Take It Easy” this generation deserves.