Chastity Belt's 'I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone' and the Power of Termite Art
Chastity Belt's latest is a killer album, laid back but upbeat, honest and laser sharp, a highly unified piece of work by four people who know exactly what they want to say and how to say it.
From inside that apartment, Chastity Belt's lead singer Julia Shapiro sings, "You should take some time to figure out your life," her voice unadorned and recessed as she sings to you, or sings to herself. "But you're stuck indoors and thinking poorly."
Those lyrics conclude the first verse of "Different Now", the opening track of the Seattle band's new album, I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone, and that verse is separated from the next by a chasm of music. Less than a minute passes, but the exchange of the song's main riff, repeated arpeggios, and full chords between Shapiro's guitar and lead guitarist Lydia Lund create years. Finally, Shapiro begins to lay down one positive message after another -- believe in yourself, have patience but go after what's yours, get comfortable just being yourself -- until she drops the hammer: "Yeah, it's different now / Yeah, it's different now: you're old".
As a phrase, and as a song, "Different Now" is a claim, a wish, and a source of anxiety. I'm different. I want to be different. What if I'm never different? What does "different" even mean? Those questions drive most of I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone and the women who speak through it, the women in the songs who lie awake in existential dread, who are bored, who wonder what they should say, who try to have fun at a bar and can't and, in the album's official closer, "5am", the women who struggle to balance their determination and strength with a profound sense of alienation. The apartment is both a trap and a refuge, a place to sort things out.
All of that makes I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone sound like a tremendous bummer. It's not. It's a killer album, laid back but upbeat, honest and laser sharp, a highly unified piece of work by four people who sound like they know exactly what they want to say and how to say it. (It's also a perfect summer album, or rather, a perfect album for summer nights if those nights involve you and few friends drinking Black Label in the dark. Not unlike, come to think of it, Yo La Tengo's 2000 album And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. In mood, I mean. There are no groovy dance beats here, no references to Tony Orlando. Though I bet Chastity Belt could do a great cover of "Saturday". For that matter, Yo La Tengo could do a pretty fine cover of Chastity Belt's "It's Obvious". Anyway.)
I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone is an album built on what John Keats defined as "negative capability": an artist's capacity for "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason", i.e., existing without having to know, though the artist and the work might dramatize the desire to know. "This Time of Night" is the most claustrophobic version of that desire on Chastity Belt's album; "Stuck", sung by Lund, is a close second. In "What the Hell", Shapiro's narrator strolls along and sings, "I had a lot of thoughts today / I felt okay / I can convince myself of anything / So what the hell." In "Caught in a Lie" she flatly asks, "What good does truth bring?" And then there's the near-title song, "Used to Spend", The chorus lifts but it's shot through with a low, buzzing guitar. Shapiro croons --
Out of the fog and finally feeling fine
My doubts are all gone and I'm having a pretty good time
Feeling like a real champ, but for how long?
I used to spend so much time alone
It's easier to describe negative capability via words; Keats was a poet, after all, and his exemplar of the trait was Shakespeare. Music, by its nature, is already ambiguous; it's way trickier (and more fun) to think about how sounds by themselves communicate various meanings as they're heard by the listener or how they undercut, reverse, gloss over, or complicate a lyric. The voice is the most obvious example of the latter. For example, the way Shapiro's voice sinks "okay" from that line in "What the Hell", or divides up the song's title phrase with a pause. Is it a sardonic statement, as in, I might as well, or is it an earnest question? All at once it's funny, young, tired, and slightly pissed off.
And what to make of the instruments behind (or in front of) the voice and the words? "It's Obvious" opens with a watery swirl of guitar; you hear the attack on the strings separated from the underwater effect. Gretchen Grimm's drums enter, heavy but precise, but you're probably not thinking about the beat or Annie Truscott's bass guitar since a springtime lead guitar line has taken the spotlight. It's very pretty -- and right on cue, there's Shapiro's slightly delayed voice, sleepy and distanced: "A pretty man with a lot of hobbies". This man sounds, immediately, like an idiot. The song's optimism is fading like a smile. "I can see right through you", she sings. That lower underwater guitar is still swirling. "I can hold your interest but only for a short time / And it feels freeing to lose". The beauty of that springtime lead is now in the past, a bitter joke that lingers, but its lingering pushes against the narrator's certainty, a conflict picked up in the chorus. Nothing is resolved.
If all of that seems grand and pretentious, the point is that it doesn't sound grand and pretentious at all. Chastity Belt practices a contemporary version of what the painter and critic Manny Farber defined as "termite art". Arguing against the bloat of "white elephant art" -- works that are grand, pretentious, e.g. Arcade Fire's last album -- Farber preferred a "bug-like immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, overall, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin."
Which sounds like life in your 20s, especially if you're an artist.
Chastity Belt's music is carefully arranged, especially the exchanges between Shapiro and Lund's guitars, but those arrangements are so casual you can imagine them just happening. This offhandedness, this wonderful ordinariness is, first of all, ground zero for the band's negative capability. Ordinary life is frustratingly uncertain. Given the pervasive ambiguity in the album, you might think the message is that nothing matters -- the punk ethos, the negation aspect of termite art taken to its most nihilistic extreme. But that's not the case. It's the performances that matter, those nailed-down moments without glamour, and while they matter a great deal, they're allowed to pass without a reach for redemption or any other lasting importance.
The ordinary drama of the band's performances is how I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone avoids being heavy-handed or self-indulgent about its inwardness, its existential dread. Music journalist Amber Cortes perfectly describes the album as "an assessment, a pause". If you think of a film, you might imagine how dramatically powerful a pause can be. Despite being just a moment, an in-between pocket of time, such a suspension can change the direction of the character, the story, or the entire film. What Farber was looking for, though, was the letting go of that moment, its dissolve.
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It's the anticipation of that dissolution that can make something as intense as a musical performance come across casually. The termite art works differently in Chastity Belt's earliest recording, the intentionally misspelled and may-have-been-ripped-off-by-Milky Way No Regerts. There, the termite impulse is firmly punk. The difference has a lot to do with starting points. Sardonic and noisy though still built mainly on clean guitars, No Regerts' starting point is that it doesn't take itself too seriously, especially on songs like "Nip Slip" and "Pussy Weed Beer". Those songs immediately feel like throwaways; that's their glorious appeal -- that and their hilarious but genuine critique of the expectations about what young women should say or do. But they do stick with you, which is another aspect of the appeal: you're surprised by the songs' staying power.
In retrospect, 2015's Time to Go Home marks the band's transition into a more nuanced kind of termite art. It introduced the reverb-heavy atmosphere and repetitive chiming riffs that continue on I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone, but it also starts from a position of sounding "serious" and then backs away from that. Instead of its moments already being fleeting and fun toss-offs as on No Regerts, songs like "Drone" and "On the Floor" and even "Cool Slut" dramatize the immersion, concentration, and then the forgetting that Farber describes.
Two years later, I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone is more obviously serious and yet the band is no less committed to or masterful in its use of the termite art aesthetic. Indeed, Chastity Belt's termite-art performances bring their songs' content to life, matching the ordinary aimlessness and self-doubt of the 20-something women in those songs with an every day, offhand honesty of word and sound.
A lot of indie music today is white elephant art. It seems determined to prove its importance, to sweep you up in its grandeur, but I find most of it to be suffocating. The whole point of the termite-art aesthetic, and what it has in common with negative capability, is that it creates room for the listener. As the musician's imprint fades, you're there to pick up the song, to make your own meaning from it rather than simply agreeing or disagreeing with its argument. You go into that apartment and make it your own. It's not a place you're going to stay in for very long, but you'll take it with you when you leave.