The phrase “headphones album” is overused by critics, almost always to describe music that is loaded with sounds. The inference is that you need headphones to hear all of the instruments, to truly “get” what is going on. Another kind of headphones album, though less often described as such, is an album that rewards patience. Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, Damon & Naomi, make those kinds of albums: slow and un-showy, rarely giving the listener simple, quickly grasped pleasures. Or at least these days they increasingly do. Their debut album, 1992’s More Sad Hits, contained more concise, spare versions of their previous band Galaxie 500’s swooning, hazy pop. Since then, Damon & Naomi’s music has continually broadened in sound and scope. The songs have stretched out, and so has their perspective. The duo’s 2000 collaboration with the Japanese group Ghost (With Ghost) cemented on record an international outlook already demonstrated by the duo’s world tours. World-traveling has made its mark on their music. On their own label 20/20/20 they have began a series of compilations of music from abroad that they’ve discovered while traveling (International Sad Hits). Their 2005 album The Earth Is Blue looked towards Brazil and Japan, adding to a lush, sensuous version of their melancholy songwriting
As its title suggests, their sixth studio album Within These Walls looks not abroad but inward. Damon & Naomi themselves have described it as “ballads in a lonely mood”. Significantly, though, they continue to follow the path towards musical expansion and collaboration. They layer these sad ballads with elegant arrangements of horns and strings, often arranged by Bhob Rainey of nmperign. And they bring back Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara. His presence is almost a given nowadays with a Damon & Naomi release, after many live and studio collaborations. But it’s no less remarkable. In this album’s climate of patient intensity, his electric guitar cuts through the air in a striking, poetic way. The most explicit example is “Stars Never Fade”. The song has at first a calming mood, with Yang singing with stars in her eyes: “The world through your eyes looks so elegant.” But soon enough she begins to question how true this really can be, whether happiness is also just a game, a ruse, “trick photography”. And then Kurihara’s guitar rips into the song and lifts it upwards in a beautifully angry way. He does similar, if less dramatic, service to the rest of the album. Similar to how some film critics try to imagine an actor as the true auteur behind a body of film work, it’s easy to imagine someone hearing this as a Kurihara album. His guitar is the thread that runs through the entire affair, drawing out the emotions. It’s the Greek chorus, observing and commenting on the tragic human affairs acted out by the songs’ characters.
In a way the album is marked by restraint. The general tone is gentle and calm, but there’s always a sense that something much darker is not far away. In fact the lyrics put the darkness much closer; most of the songs’ narrators feel like bleak, total darkness is upon them. But musically the duo never gives in to emulating the absolute dark. Instead the album seems a continual balancing act between the heavy and the light, between deeply sad sounds and more hopeful ones. The album’s first song, “Lilac Land”, has a moment which musically exemplifies the restraint Damon & Naomi display in their approach. The song begins with Yang singing of inescapable heartbreak. At about the two-and-a-half-minute mark, there’s a moment of tense silence, where you’re sure everything is about to explode. But the music doesn’t explode, it just proceeds, all the more tense for it.
This aura of restraint is one reason Kurihara’s electric guitar makes such an impression, by continually poking a knife blade out from the shadows. Yang’s voice is especially placid and pretty throughout the album, as she and Krukowski each sing about heartbreak, loneliness, and the realization that the truth is cold and ugly. Their songs’ protagonists often seem to just barely be holding their heads above the waves, just staying afloat. In the title track, Yang sings of the temptation of saying goodbye once and for all to this “world too unkind”, and the wish for a deus ex machina, or at least a lover who cares: “when I hold my breath beneath the wave…come save me”.
For an album that musically emulates a moment of stillness preceding potential utter devastation, it manages a surprising amount of diversity. The strings, horns, and Kurihara’s guitar are part of this, as their appearances are carefully arranged to maximize the musical and emotional effect. But Within These Walls also includes enough musical passages that feel absolutely hopeful. The brighter passages lean against the bleakest ones, creating a balance that makes the album stronger. The album’s second song, “The Well”, is probably the loveliest Damon & Naomi song yet. It’s open and airy, with a striking melody that buoys the sense of hope inherent in the lyrics. Krukowski sings high backing vocals that sweetly balance with Yang’s voice as she takes the album’s recurring water metaphor in an optimistic direction, singing, “wide-open water can set you free.” And of course Kurihara’s guitar plays a key role in this as well, gliding gracefully. The song shines even brighter because of its appearance between tragedies.
The same happens at the album’s end, as another moment of hope is paired with something bitter. “The Turnaround” is a long-distance love song with a sense of starting over: “brushes dipped in fresh white paint / the turnaround / the change of key”. The next song, “Cruel Queen”, slaps it in the face, though. A distinctively creepy, yet somehow moving, update of the traditional folk ballad “The Trees They Do Grow High” brings the album to a brutal end. Damon & Naomi’s version gives the song a fresh strangeness while retaining the feeling that it’s an old tale, and that human manipulation of hearts is an ancient game. It caps off the album with the impression that Within These Walls’s perspective stretches far beyond the walls of any one room, after all. Heartbreak is universal.