Jandek: Khartoum Variations

Khartoum Variations
Corwood Industries

To offset the lowest rating I’ve ever felt compelled to give, interested parties are directed to look up Douglas Wolk’s thoughtful 1999 piece on the infamous musical recluse that is Jandek. I, however, do not possess Wolk’s admirable patience.

Jandek is one of recorded music’s biggest enigmas. Little is known about the man apart from the 30 or so albums he’s released on his own Corwood Industries imprint since 1978. And while that fact might be refreshing in a culture where audiences feel the need to know the most inane details about their favorite artists, the music itself is as refreshing as a hot tripe shower. It is desolate, atonal, almost wholly devoid of recognizable structure, often excruciating. In the rarest of rare interviews with Jandek, he was asked if he wanted people to “get” something from his music. He replied, “There’s nothing to get.” In which case it comes down to whether or not you want to subject yourself to fifty minutes of detuned guitar plunking and lonely wailing. You can probably guess into which category I fall.

The following is my personal experience with one of the three or four Jandek records coming out this year. I will jot down my thoughts almost as I get them… you know, Jandek-style.

Khartoum Variations is indeed a collection of variations on 2005’s Khartoum. Just how they vary, I don’t know, because I sure as hell won’t be looking it up. But it’s impressive to know that a song like opener “You Wanted to Leave” is apparently composed enough to have its own alternate track. It starts with the metallic jangle of one seriously fucked up guitar and is soon accompanied by Jandek’s bleating calf vocals, singing something about, wait, smoke? Smote? Samoa? “I know you didn’t care / In the end / Like in the beginning”. Okay, yep, next song. “Fragmentation” makes me check the batteries in my stereo’s remote. They’re working; I did in fact choose the second track, which sounds pretty much like the first. I’m reminded of a friend’s assessment of the Books as music you’d hear in an art gallery “with a really weird vibe.” Ha! She should hear Jandek make “I tear myself to pieces” almost come out like “tiramisu” while a guitar throws up all over itself. That’d show her.

Now I’m onto “I Shot Myself”, and I’m surprised by how fast this is going. I’m not even skipping tracks, and the time is flying by. “I shot myself / I’m over some hill / Beyoooooond the valley”. Or maybe it’s the valet, the hill beyond the valet. Jandek’s voice squeaks up into a falsetto one moment, gurgles and dies the next. I’m feeling some of the fascination and mystery that I’ve been reading about, trying to picture the guy’s surroundings as he records this stuff, somewhere in Houston, Texas. Did he really shoot himself, for one, because I could be convinced. What’s hanging on his walls? Porcelain clown art, I hope. “Until the ice of your catapult…” he sings. Until the ice of my catapult what? This could really go anywhere. My catapult ice knows no bounds.

Okay, I’m skipping to “Khartoum”. This is, after all, the song that named two albums. My attention is waning. There’s a little section sans guitar that perks me up for a moment, a relatively peaceful, skronkless oasis. And then there’s, oh forget it, I give up. There is room, however miniscule, in the world for this type of stuff. And it is undeniably more fascinating than say, Train, for example. I bet even Train would admit that. To varying degrees, we all face ugliness on a daily basis. And we choose to do all sorts of things with it. Mostly, if we’re lucky enough to have the luxury of doing so, we block it out or ignore it. But sometimes we study it closely, and sometimes we even find beauty in it. I find Khartoum Variations to be very, very ugly, not the kind of experience I would ever want to seek out again, hence the “2”. I can’t find the beauty in it. That’s what I “get” from something that declares it has nothing to “give”. Maybe your experience will be different, you’ll love it, make room for it, and that’s as it should be.

RATING 2 / 10