Have you ever wondered what it would sound like if Iggy Pop were to recite the poems of Walt Whitman atop an ambient/post-rock backing? Well, here’s an album just for you.
At just 23-minutes and featuring a mere seven of the seemingly endless number of poems collected in Walt Whitman’s constantly-revised collection of the same name, the vinyl-only Leaves of Grass comes across as something of an odd stopgap release for all artists involved; an earnest exercise in esotericism. It’s not that these recordings are completely without merit, even though they're rather somewhat perplexing in their very existence. Surely there was no robust outcry for a contemporary, electronic, minimalist interpretation of the 19th century poet’s work recited by a ragged punk icon that brought this particular project into being? The EP’s accompanying press materials give no hint as to the genesis of the project, making the end result all the more perplexing.
While the musical combination of like-minded artists Alva Noto (nee Carston Nicolai), fresh off his work with Ryuichi Sakamoto on the soundtrack to The Revenant, and Tarwater (Bernd Jestram and Ronald Lippok) makes for a fine pairing, their minimalist approach to post-rock and ambient electronica stands in rather sharp contrast to Iggy Pop’s gravel-voiced, whispered recitations. Like the wizened punk grandfather he is, Pop introduces the title of each as though he were reading a bedtime story. It’s a strange approach that only further heightens the disjointed feel between music and verse, but throughout, he seems genuinely pleased with the task at hand, gamely reciting each on the verge of studied stoicism.
Only on “Ages And Ages Returning at Intervals” do they manage something that feels like a true collaboration and melding of music and words, its ominously propulsive electronic drums and drones operating in rhythm with Pop’s measured recitation. It’s one of the few instances in which the two seem to go hand-in-hand, the remainder of the album sounding more as two disparate elements playing in tandem, occasionally syncing, occasionally tonally similar.
Unsurprisingly, the overriding theme throughout the poems selected is largely carnal in nature. Given Pop’s knowing delivery, the majority seem to virtually drip with sexual tension, the words coming out as succulent bursts of the barely recognizable rendered new and different as they rise from the depths of Pop’s weathered body. On “A Woman Waits for Me”, he gives a gleefully lascivious performance, the words dripping with the sexual undertones inherent in the verse. By the end, Pop sounds as though he’s amused himself, as if having read the poem for the first time and finding himself emboldened and quite satisfied as he reaches the end. It’s one of the few moments of genuine emotion in an otherwise low-key, almost monotone performance.
In discussing the work of Whitman, Pop had this to say: “His poetry is always about motion and rushing ahead, and crazy love and blood pushing through the body.” Here he delivers a statement that serves as a near note perfect encapsulation of the sound heard throughout much of Leaves of Grass, all slowly pulsing rhythms and ominous minor chord drones simmering behind and propelling the lyric verse. Given this statement, while the idea seems clear, the end result finds the musical underscoring offering little in service of the poems themselves. Rather, Pop’s performance, as enjoyable as it may be, feels like something of an afterthought, often proving somewhat distracting when paired with minimalist post-rock/electronic/ambient score.
If nothing else, Leaves of Grass is a strange collection that does little to strengthen the reputation of any of the parties involved, but is pleasant and successful enough to not be seen as the black mark it well could’ve been.