The Unspeakable Horror of Daughters' 'You Won't Get What You Want'
There's an 'exorbitant' something that might be considered the implicit subject of Daughters' You Won't Get What You Want, in which it's never entirely clear if the threat is invasive, exerted from outside, or the confession of internal struggle.
Along with a near universal acclaim as one of the best albums of 2018, noise-rock outfit Daughters' fourth studio release, You Won't Get What You Want (Ipecac), has acquired a curious reputation for being a truly scary work. Upheld as 'the most effectively terrifying' album of the 'decade' by Youtube super-critic Anthony Fantano (You Won't Get What You Want would appear at number one on Fantano's 2018 end of year round-up) the accepted notion of the album's horrifying qualities has dominated discussion across the internet.
And yet, there has been little if any sustained response into what makes this album so uniquely unsettling. Certainly, the connection between fearfulness and music is hardly new. David Stubbs, in Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen (Zero Books, 2009), for better or for worse, highlights the link between the cutting edge of 20th century composition and an attitude of fear and revulsion. To this end, we might ask whether there's an essential character to scary music. Is it prodigiously loud music? Surely the ghostly rattlings of modern electronic composers such as Steve Roden or Akira Rabelais would suggest that it doesn't need to be. Moreover, is this scariness intimately tied to the avant-garde? While the breakthrough of unfamiliar forms invariably elicits a visceral (Stubbs would argue 'irrational') response, music's capacity to terrorize has an established history in the popular consciousness: for every Stravinsky-esque 'riot' you have the instantly recognizable semi-tone progression of John Williams' Jaws theme.
Nevertheless, the insistence on the primary scariness of You Won't Get What You Want as a piece of media is striking—a phenomenon that, upon first listen, is at once both obvious and elusory. After all, grotesquerie, misanthropy, and black humour have long been essential ingredients for the Rhode Island four-piece, dating back to 2003's Canada Songs and the 2006 grind-core opus Hell Songs (the latter featuring track titles like 'The Fuck Whisperer'). With this latest release, the band largely depart from the scattershot transgressions of their earliest releases in favor of a new, ambiguous, terrain of frequently unnamed (and unnamable) horror.
As we will see, the wretched characters that populate vocalist Alexis Marshall's lyrics—complemented by the singularly deranged guitars of Nick Sadler—appear haunted by a deep expressive impasse, fleeing from and yet hopeless to escape some forever uncrossable threshold. Perhaps a more useful analogue might be found in the quasi-renaissance enjoyed by the horror genre over the past decade: culminating in the rather dubious labels of 'post-horror', 'smart horror', or the gag-inducing 'elevated horror'. Invoked alongside a new wave of critically acclaimed horror cinema, it is, nonetheless, tempting to consider You Won't Get What You Want as an outgrowth—if not a direct-extension—of the same paranoid universe as films such as Robert Eggers' The Witch (2015) or Trey Edward Shults' It Comes at Night (2017). Without drawing naïve equivalences between media Daughters, like much influential horror cinema today, functions according to a horrifying logic that, in French philosopher Julia Kristeva's terms, simply 'looms' (all subsequent quotations taken from Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia university Press, 1982). Signifying a palpable threat, at once impossibly distant and yet too close to firmly reckon with, it this 'abject' (in Kristeva' terms) malady that toxifies the world of You Won't Get What You Want.
Before elaborating on this, it's worth placing You Won't Get What You Want in the broader context of Daughters' uniquely chaotic back catalogue. Much has been made of the unusual trajectory of their music, with output ranging from the convulsive screamo of Hell Songs to the robust post-punk of their later releases. In particular, the 2011 album Daughters stands as a significant landmark in the band's career—and one which might further illuminate the artistic decisions of You Won't Get What You Want.
Speaking to the band's capacity for intrepid experimentation, Daughters brings together a fearsomely catchy selection of tracks, unafraid of drawing from generic influences far beyond their punk-rock roots. Never before have the band sounded quite so catchy as on the charging rhythms of 'Our Queens (One is Many, Many are One)'. Elsewhere, Daughters' exploratory impulses can be seen through the ambitious nature of Sadler's guitar playing, the sonic equivalent of an unhinged trapeze act, swinging violently between rock 'N' roll swagger and agonizing moments of abrasive dissonance. Of equal importance is Marshall's increasing lyrical maturity; moving away from the irony-laden anti-songs of their first two LPs, bloody minded cuts such as 'The Virgin' and 'The Dead Singer' play out as villainous incantations of the gothic and macabre. Furthermore, Marshall's vocal delivery continues to eschew the death growls of Canada Songs, mutating into an intoned, spoken word delivery, recalling both the burlesque nihilism of Birthday Party-era Nick Cave and the hyperventilating vocals of Alan Vega.
Breaking almost a decade of radio-silence, one can still find germinal traces of You Won't Get What You Want—along with the band's scary turn—in the self-titled album. Notable examples include the marooned-sounding vocal passages of 'The Theatre Goer', anticipating the browbeaten and destitute passages of Marshall's vocals in the later LP; on top of this, the dissonant guitar and hypnotic drums comprising the tense opening movement of 'The Dead Singer' point to the layered, industrial-influenced, noise compositions which Daughters have increasingly exploited for unnerving effect. Nevertheless, at 48-minutes in length (unprecedented by Daughters' standards), You Won't Get What You Want, stands alone as an exercise in duration, both an extension as well as a deepening of prior tendencies. Where before, the brevity of Daughters' claustrophobic compositions afforded some respite (tracks rarely exceeding the three-minute mark), the protracted nature of their latest efforts pile intensity upon intensity, throwing into relief the aches and disturbances of embodied listening. The result is an unrelenting experience from which one cannot escape.
From the start of the album, Daughters immediately set their sights on creating an 'intriguing, ominous and foreshadowing opening.' The band's No-Wave influences (particularly the dense atmospherics of Suicide) are writ large over the album opener 'City Song' commencing with Samuel Walker's cacophonous bassline, punctuated by Jon Syverson's jarring, staccato snare-hits. Sadler's playing continues to shapeshift, building to a shrieking crescendo, like the violent death-throws of some long-exhausted machine. Meanwhile, Marshall's vocals are pitched disarmingly low, seldom rising higher than an eerie whimper. The vision is of a city brought to a point of trembling inertia ('words do nothing, no one sleeps/shops are closed, there is nothing'); this marks the first of many moments in which the listener begins to feel entombed.
Nevertheless, it's Marshall's often poker-faced delivery that remains one of the most thoroughly unsettling things about the album. The closer one listens, the more one finds the bludgeoning intensity and muscularity of the music offset against a kind of torpor that seeps at the corners of the record's otherwise compacted noise-scape. It's in this spirit that You Won't Get What You Want stands as a thorough excavation of what might only be described as sheer auditory negativity.
To be clear, negativity in this context is not merely reducible to a negative outlook—despite the band's signature nihilism being in full force (see 'Satan in the Wake': 'some faces not even a mother could love'; or 'Long Road No Turns': 'everybody climbs so high and falls so far. A little is all it takes…') Rather, it's the album's strange reticence when confronted by the objects of its depressive worldview that results in a nakedly anti-cathartic effect. In an interview with The Quietus (6 December 2018), Marshall alludes to the absorption of the personal by the narrative drive of Daughters' lyrics. As we will see, this is taken a step further in You Won't Get What You Want, where the cannibals and beserk Christian missionaries that populated the narratives of the self-titled LP are replaced by a distressing 'something' ('Ocean Song') or the omnipresent 'it' to which Marshal compulsively returns in both 'The Lords Song' and 'Less Sex.'
This refusal to name echoes the linguistic ruptures memorably labeled by Michel Foucault as 'limit experiences'. Writing in response to the lurid erotic fiction of George Bataille, Foucault points us to those extreme states of sexual or violent encounter that lead to the dispossession of the (invariably Western) Enlightenment subject. By virtue of reaching its unsettling limit, Foucault writes, 'the subject reaches decomposition, leaves itself, at the limits of its own impossibility.' (from Foucault, Remarks on Marx, 1991)
It's this uncanny convergence of the possible and impossible that also serves as a generic motor for much of horror media. Whether through surreal metamorphosis (The Fly, Kurt Neumann, 1958; Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven, 1984) or the reduction of the body to its most base materiality (Hellraiser, Clive Barker,1987), the notable affect of horror seems predicated on a similar process of emptying out... Nevertheless, for Foucault, like many of his philosophical contemporaries, the 'decomposition' implicit within terrifying 'limit experiences' also withholds a perversely optimistic sense of generative possibility. At the threshold of one's understanding, the epistemic 'limit' has the effect of forcing the replotting of circumscribed rational discourse. Despite the often violent and grotesque content of You Won't Get What You Want, there's no generation in Daughters' universe; only persistent agitation without revelation.
For this reason, moments of bataillain excess appear merely formal, stripped of all hope for relief or ecstasy. The result is a peculiar flattening effect, chillingly felt even in the album's more frenzied turns. It's there in the creeping industrial ambience of 'City Song'. It also affects what the band describe as Sadler's 'sea sick droning guitar' on 'Long Road No Turns', in which restless virtuosity is replaced by the combinatory, with Sadler paralyzed to repeat variations of the same horrifying musical phrase.
A more apt theoretical frame for the uniquely anguished character of You Won't Get What You Want must be sought elsewhere. At this point we might turn to the influential work of Julia Kristeva—in particular, her often misunderstood concept of the 'abject'. Long considered a key theoretical text on the overlapping manifestations of narcissism, prejudice, and horror in modern society, Kristeva's aforementioned study, Powers of Horror, offers a memorable view of the human subject as existing in a state of continuous tension. Often collapsed into an overly simplistic conception of pre-conceptual otherness, Kristeva's 'abject', instead, speaks to the often painful intimacies cultivated with that which might otherwise be considered radically outside our experience. Throughout the study, Kristeva illustrates that we are seized by a 'threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside.' Without a definable object, this threat, Kristeva memorably argues, is stimulated by our revulsion to the 'impure' or 'unclean'—that which is both expelled and yet not definably other… As a result, this 'abject' matter—both 'not me […] But not nothing either'—is felt as a '"something" that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me.'
It's this 'exorbitant' something that might be considered the implicit subject of Daughters' album, in which it's never entirely clear if the threat is invasive, exerted from outside, or the confession of internal struggle. For all the record's crushing solipsism, there is also a creeping sense, as Marshall states in the refrain to 'Satan in the Wake', that the 'world is opening up'. As a result, the simmering possibility of a near-far threat haunts You Won't Get What You Want for much of its run time, highlighted in Marshall's lyrics, where characters are inexorably drawn back to the threshold separating them from the threatening outside. Let's examine these tensions as they manifest in the lyrics for the two closing tracks of You Won't Get What You Want: 'Ocean Song' and 'Guest House'. As a diptych, their twin-narratives of escape and return eerily mirror the terrifying 'summons' and 'repulsion' invoked by Kristeva in the face of a 'looming' unnamable threat.
As the longest track of the album, 'Ocean Song' provides a thorough rendering of Marshall's 'abject' universe. Telling the tale of Paul (one wonders whether this is the same isolated character, with the 'hat of fire' named in 'The Virgin' from Daughters), the track's protagonist finds himself tormented by a disquieting sense of threat, unsettling the realm of the familiar. As Marshall's story unfolds, Paul is suddenly beset by an urge to escape from his surroundings – sparsely identified only by a 'stalled garage door', 'unkempt bushes', and the dim, unelaborated promise of an 'evening greeting'. Against this sedate background, Paul—in perfectly Kristevean terms—notes the presence of a threatening 'something' in his midst. This is further disclosed in an evocative passage, in which Paul, sitting alone in his car, finds himself paralysed by a world he no longer recognizes:
He opens the door, the world is suddenly different/ He senses something terrible awaiting/ A loose thread, a worsening/ At that moment he turns to the sky/ He notices that it's darker now than it used to be/ It's darker now at this hour, than it was last week.
Far from the chaotic disturbances of the Foucauldian 'limit', Paul's experience of the negative results in both a figurative and literal darkening of horizons. Throughout, the dual attack of Samuel Walker's trudging bass and Jon Syverson's anxious drum pattern, articulated in fitful bursts, offer a perfect accompaniment to the song's building atmosphere of paranoia and dread.
As we continue listening, Paul finds himself taken by a phantasmatic voice, urging him to run from his surroundings. The low-key repetition of 'go…run' echoing throughout the verses of 'Ocean Song' feel like the schizoid internal monologue of a character at breaking-point. Moreover, while Paul's self-immolating desire to 'run' indulges in the well-trodden (and highly gendered) fantasy of pure escape from a world of homely 'servitude', this is expressed in thoroughly unromantic—perhaps even anti-humanistic—terms. Marshall's tale is at once a degeneration as well as a possession narrative, with Paul 'leaping' over neighboring fences, like a 'wild animal'; at the same time, he is impelled by a ghostly voice—'within or beyond himself, a voice more primal'—urging him to run faster than his body will allow. The crushing refrain—in which the injunction 'to go', 'to run', is once again, lifelessly intoned—drains the fantasy of all anti-heroic fervor, rendered an almost entirely directionless and de-libidinized exercise. The result is a strange combination of what Kristeva describes as 'brutish suffering', symptomatic of the 'abject', and an attenuation (think of the 'empty glass' city of 'City Song')—recalling both the rough-edged Gothicism of Cormac McCarthy and the deadening literary constructions of Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Where 'Ocean Song' follows the character's expulsion from an inert domestic sphere, 'Guest House' marks the return to a—now inaccessible—place of resolution. Indeed, the principle event appears to be one of chilling non-arrival: the concretization of a Kristevean 'border that has encroached upon everything.' This overwhelming sense of defeat is further reflected in the sonic palette of the track. By contrast with the groaning denouement of 'Ocean Song', one is hurled into 'Guest House' beginning—almost in-media res—with the same heavy chords that attack the listener throughout its four-and-a-half-minute run-time. All performances are raised to a frightening intensity, trading mercurial dynamic shifts for a sonic onslaught that's punishing in its directness.
Speaking of the song's 'cinematic' qualities, Walker characterizes the track as having 'as much stranger-danger anxiety as tape will allow.' Elsewhere, in Marshall's lyrics, the band come perilously close to identifying the sinister presence that has metaphorically stalked the album up to this point. As we listen, the now unnamed character is caught in the search for somewhere to exorcise 'the soulless, charming, winter-hell creature upon me'. Evoking an image of inescapable, internal strife, this 'creature' also serves a distinctly 'abject' function; the dissociative effect of the passive voice renders the speaker grammatically a stranger from themselves, parasitically reduced to the status of an object. It's this terrifying sense of separation and foreclosure, envisioned in 'Guest House', that betrays the ambiguity of the horror to which we, as listeners, may only glimpse.
The partitioned-quality of Daughter's grotesque world is further reinforced in the proliferating obstacles hindering the speaker's access to the titular house. Delivered in a menacing growl, Marshall implores the listener: 'Who locked the door? Who bent the key?' There's no longer any hope of 'the ocean beyond the waves' of which Paul dreams in 'Ocean Song'; there's only a steady enclosure. This berserk penchant for repetition, spiraling back to the same impasse, remains one of the most unsettling characteristics of the album. With each cycle the possibilities dwindle: 'Who put a padlock on the cellar door? […] Who bricked off the chimney'. The further the track progresses, the more desperate Marshall begins to sound. To this end, one of the impressive aspects of Marshall's vocal style is its tendency, at moments of maximum aggression, to retreat back into the unreadable. Ranging from a miserable whimper to a demonic snarl, we are never fully relieved of our suspicion that the victimized speaker might equally be the monster 'pounding' at the door.
By the end of the track, Marshall's pleas to 'let me in' are left unresolved. The uncanny artificiality of the concluding minute of blissful strings keep the track from veering too far into the realm of catharsis. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to suggest that Daughters' primary aim is to keep us from properly sharing in this anguish, either. Rather, the potency of 'Guest House' (one need only listen) might be found in the band's success at locating a grim pathos in the impossibility of properly naming the horror that weighs on so many of the terrifying songs featured on You Won't Get What You Want. In this regard, the culmination of the album seems less like a lashing-out than the fearful scrambling of one with too much to express but too little time to adequately find the words.