Fertile is a dense and trying listen, one that is probably more high-minded than it is compelling.
When you spend two years in an MFA creative writing program, you're bound to run into a discussion about "difficult art." Is all art difficult? Should all art be difficult? Is so-called "difficult" art more important than other art? It is an unfortunate pitfall to the academic side of creativity, in the end. But it isn't a question without merit. In the end, a piece of art should be difficult (read: experimental, dense), but only if it is a necessity to the piece's creation. You can't set out to create something difficult; that is something the piece and its process must dictate.
These were the kinds of thoughts that came up while listening to KK Null's new record, Fertile. To argue that this album is not a well-crafted piece of sound, that it isn't meticulously put together, would be an argument that doesn't hold much water. These songs swell and drone with the reliability of the tides. They have moments that sound perfectly crafted, the blips and churns layered together in the only way they could possibly be. And Fertile is nothing if not difficult. The structure of each track -- there's eight here, all untitled -- is nearly impossible to figure out, let alone the structure of the album as a whole.
Still, it isn't the difficulty of the album that becomes the problem. The trouble with KK Null's latest is a flaw inherent in much of what is considered to be "difficult" art -- be it literary, musical, or otherwise. For all its dense laptop instrumentation, the album doesn't really ever try to approach emotion. Instead, Null (a.k.a. Kazuyuki Kishino) prefers to go for reaction. There are moments here -- particularly the screeching build of the first track -- that provide a reaction nothing short of visceral. But the song itself remains cold, impersonal. And while it might be interesting enough to wonder how Null put it together, it doesn't really spark questions about what Null might have been feeling.
Listening to Fertile is, in the end, an intellectual exercise. You may wonder about how it came together, how the songs stretch out as the album moves along, how they mellow and settle into the sound of the album, and what all that means. But it probably won't remind you of your own experiences; it's not likely to ring personal for you because there is too much of a wall between listener and music. And this isn't to say that music shouldn't be intellectual or difficult. On the contrary, it is the function of all art -- not just music -- to poke at things and make holes and examine what's going on around us. The Clash was difficult, Animal Collective is difficult, Bowie was difficult, you could even call the Hold Steady difficult -- and they are all fantastic in their own ways. Because they know, in the end, that music can't be just intellectual. There has to be some feeling behind it, or how can it resonate with an audience? Music should make us think, but we should be feeling something while we're doing all that thinking. And while the movement of Fertile, from the screech of track one to the more drawn-out, muted drones on track eight, suggests the possibility of an emotional movement, there just isn't enough of it there to hold onto.
Someone once recommended Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to me by saying, "My friend read it and she said it was one of the most beautiful sounding books she'd ever read. But she didn't know what a word of it meant." Unfortunately, so it is with Fertile. It might sound interesting, but its density is its downfall. It prefers difficulty over meaning, and all this sound pushes against the listeners, rather than inviting them in.