The French post-impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard was, according to a legend which can be fairly well substantiated by historical evidence and the opinions of his contemporaries, either quite fond of revising and tinkering with his paintings, or somewhat incapable of knowing when to draw a line under them and say that they were finished. The story goes that he would even revisit paintings to continue work on them after they had been hung and exhibited in museums during his lifetime. Picasso himself described Bonnard’s work as “a potpourri of indecision”, while Henri Matisse demurred at this opinion and declared that Bonnard was in fact “a rare and courageous painter”, “a great painter today and assuredly in the future”.
That may have little or nothing to do with the work of Jane Weaver, but the fact remains that she is and has for some time been a rather avid reviser of her material. As far back as 2012 she issued Watchbird Alluminate as a way of partially reconsidering her 2010 album The Fallen By Watchbird. Then in 2015 she proceeded to revisit and expand upon 2014’s Silver Globe with The Amber Light. And now with Loops in the Secret Society Weaver is giving a new treatment (described as an “expansionist experiment”) to songs from both The Silver Globe and Modern Kosmology (2017), along with at least one more reconsideration of a song from the long-ago and aforementioned Watchbird Alluminate. This restless revisiting and re-working seem, in Weaver’s case, not to be an act of continuing and chronic indecision but rather a continuing “investigation”, as Dita Amory has previously described Bonnard’s work.
Weaver is not this chronically uncertain about her recorded output, but it is striking that she does seem to return quite regularly to work that one might otherwise assume to be settled and finished. Put another way, Weaver seems to be offering with each revision what Raymond Williams has called “thickened descriptions” of what has gone before, or as Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt have also said, this time about Williams himself, “the exploration of the cul-de-sacs where unrealized possibilities were stranded”. This refusal to settle, or to allow the work of art itself fully to settle, leaves every piece somewhat open to future expansion and reframing, such that we might even now consider these new versions as way stations even still, updates that might yet require further qualification at a later date. It’s a rather refreshing way of not allowing old work to ossify, while also presenting new work as always already provisional and subject to change and growth.
The question of whether you need to re-connect all of the versions here to all of their original sources can become a little exhausting, and while a certain kind of musical genealogy and forensic listening can be interesting and rewarding, the songs presented here can certainly be enjoyed on their own merits without necessarily requiring us to resort to a Weaver concordance. But just to get a few of those little details out of the way, of the 22 tracks on Loops in the Secret Society there are about three songs that originally appeared on The Silver Globe, roughly five from Modern Kosmology, a couple from other sources, and a series of shorter ambient pieces that serve not so much as interludes but rather as connective tissue between the variations of earlier songs.
If we begin with the opening track as an example of how this works, “Element” was actually on neither Modern Kosmology nor The Silver Globe, but was in fact the last track on The Architect EP from 2017. “The Architect” itself was a track Modern Kosmology and was immediately followed on that album by a track called “Loops in the Secret Society”, which is, of course, the name of this album. That track does not officially appear here in this lengthy re-imagining of Weaver’s past work. The point of this rather confusing genealogical digression is to demonstrate some of the ways in which the rabbit hole of Weaver’s oeuvre can quickly become a bewildering warren. And how typically contrary and mischievous of Weaver to begin what is ostensibly a reconsideration of her last two official albums by revisiting a track that wasn’t on either of them.
The reworking of “Element” is, you might say, rather subtle, but nevertheless quite distinctive. Whereas the version of the song on The Architect EP gets to its motorik groove pretty quickly, the “Loops Variation”, as it is called here, takes a lot longer to find that groove, all while it is a full minute shorter than its source track. In this context, the song feels much more like a form of ambient religious music that eventually finds its way to another more secular place. It is in this case, as so often elsewhere, that the originals function as palimpsests upon which other songs are laid down. The notion of the palimpsest might be a useful mode by which to approach and understand this work, given that it seems to be subject to regular, if not constant, overwriting (and by “overwriting” here one should not infer an overabundance of writing, but rather a layering of songs on top of other songs).
Two things stand out here to make this album so very enjoyable and fulfilling: the sequencing and the flow of the songs, and the increased clarity of these versions as compared to their originals. The sequencing and the flow of the songs here are extremely satisfying as if re-casting earlier songs and punctuating them with those connective ambient interludes allow them to breathe. The sequence of the first six tracks is an instructive example of how the whole album works. The opening out of “Elements” into a less urgent mode is followed by a completely natural connector in “Milk Loop” (a reference, perhaps to “Majic Milk” from Watchbird Alluminate, which also gets the full treatment here later on). “Milk Loop” devolves into a chiming but gentle cacophony that flows, also quite organically, into the absolutely gorgeous and ethereally echoing “Arrows”, originally from The Silver Globe. “Arrows” is itself bookended by another beautiful piece of ambient linkage in “Found Birds”, which appears twice here in different forms.
From there we move to the twinned songs of “H>A>K” and “Did You See Butterflies”, which appeared in this very same sequence on Modern Kosmology. The insistent pulse of “H>A>K” and the continuing pulse of “Did You See Butterflies” mimics and revisits their original context, but also achieves those two other critical effects mentioned earlier. The almost continuous sequencing of the songs from one to another makes the album feel like a single piece so that the listener can easily become entirely lost in the album to the point where you might wonder if you are hearing something new or a recurring motif that you heard a few songs or a few moments before. Further, these new versions seem to achieve a richness and clarity that the earlier versions, only in hindsight, appear to have lacked. There didn’t seem, for example, to have been anything at all wrong with the original version of “Arrows”, but the version here seems to have achieved a new clarity as well as it is, along with its counterparts, fully integrated into the fabric of the current project, in service of something bigger than itself.
And lest you think that the seamless sequencing and flow of the album might flatten out the experience of the songs, there are certainly moments of planned dissonance that keep you from complete transcendence that might otherwise masquerade as a kind of zoning out. The clatter of the 22-second “Sun House” gives way to the very pretty “Loops Variation” of “Sun House”, which is only a prelude to Silver Globe’s “Mission Desire”, whose version here is more rattle than hum, thus ensuring our continued attention. Nevertheless, the suite of songs from “Battle Ropes” to the recurrence of “Found Birds” (both versions are deeply resonant and oscillating sequences of electronic chords that swell deliciously as they lap at the shores of the fuller-length songs around them) and then to “Slow Motion” and “Margins” is just about aurally perfect. Indeed “Slow Motion”, from Modern Kosmology, may be, along with The Amber Light’s “I Need a Connection” Weaver’s high water mark, and its extended and expanded treatment here is quite sublime. That may be in part due to Weaver’s ongoing collaboration with her longtime partner and veteran sound genius Andy Votel, who is described here as one of her “co-conspirators”.
It is hard to say definitively whether some, any or all of these songs are “better” or “worse” than versions you may have heard elsewhere in other settings. For example “Cells”, from The Silver Globe, is a good bit longer here, whereas its original sounds quieter and somewhat less confident, whereas “Ravenspoint”, from Modern Kosmology feels somewhat slighter and dronier here than in its previous instantiation, but it also feels less fussy now. The “Loops Variation” of “Majic Milk”, originally from Watchbird Alluminate, seems here more like an ambient exploration than the much folkier version that preceded it.
But if we begin to engage in this kind of side-by-side comparison of the versions, we may begin to subject ourselves as listeners to the kind of indecision of which Picasso famously accused Bonnard, as if the artistic decision as to when a work is “finished” has become a contagion now contracted by the audience. So not only does this seem like a rather pointless exercise that can detract from the experience of listening to Loops in the Secret Society, it can also serve to validate what seems like a pretty invalid criticism. This music might better be received and approached as a kind of gestalt to which the best response is mere surrender and an acknowledgment that this is a sui generis musical experience, and that on occasion it approaches the mystical and the sacred, as the “secret society” of the album’s title might lead us to infer.