Instrumental music often benefits from the lack of context that comes from the absence of lyrics. Listeners of all kinds of music infuse their chosen soundtracks with their own personal memories and emotions, but leaving words out of the equation puts broader interpretive authority into the hands of the audience. Then there are times, as is the case with Dan Friel’s latest, Life, where a little bit of context helps to expose the gentler meaning beneath the rough, bracing surface.
Friel’s third solo full length, and third release for Thrill Jockey following the Valedictorian/Exoskeleton EP and Total Folklore from 2013, was composed on a limited equipment set-up, including a small keyboard from the 1980’s called the Yamaha Portasound; essentially a toy that was also his first instrument. Friel also recently became a father, and Life’s opening track, the quiet little sci-fi “Lullaby (for Wolf)”, has its origins in a melody that he sang to his infant son. Life is the sound of Friel reconnecting with what it was like to be a child transmitted from the hazy half-awake state (see “Sleep Deprivation”) of having his own. Like Built to Spill’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love or Julie Doiron’s work, it is just as much an album about memories of youth as it is about parenthood.
Unlike Doiron or Doug Martsch, though, Friel isn’t saying anything overt about these experiences. Technically, of course, he’s not saying anything at all. Thus, knowing the roles that he was exploring in the creation process helps frame Life’s frayed ebullience. It also makes obvious where the theme of his new video for “Rattler”, one of the disc’s many blown-out electro-stompers, came from.
There are no twelve-minute monsterpieces here, like Total Folklore’s “Ulysses” (one almost wishes it were twice as long so there would be a minute for every hour of its namesake novel) but if the two separate parts of the title track that bookend side B were combined that would come pretty close. Life fits nicely in succession with its predecessor, as both do with Friel’s decade of solo output before them. He tweaks, expands and refines with each new release, but his recent records still have plenty in common with his early EPs like Sunburn and Obsoleter.
It’s admirable how much color Friel is able to squeeze out of that little Portasound, but building more out of less has been a recurring motif in both his solo work and that of his former band, Parts & Labor. Whereas many musicians employ noise as a way to convey a range of unsettling emotions, with Friel (and to some extent formerly with Parts & Labor as well) it seems more about obscuring joy. Or, perhaps, pushing that joy past a reasonable spectrum.
All the level-accosting static that the album revels in can’t sour its sugar-spun melodies. It’s not surprising that Friel finds a kindred spirit in Joanna Gruesome, whose “Jamie (Luvver)” he covers here, given the Welsh group’s twee take on reckless punk rock. Life’s light heart shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of serious intent, but it is refreshing when an artist can mature without succumbing to clichéd trappings of maturity.