It seems odd that this is the only the first collaboration between Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet. Both artists are pioneers in their own right, trailblazers for modern music as both a performance art as well as an interdisciplinary partner. Anderson’s work in music, film, and the written word has made her one of the most vital and engaging artists of the modern age, a storyteller whose work transcends any designations of art and pop. Active for over 40 years, the Kronos Quartet is justifiably considered to be the perfect model of for modern string quartets with their extensive commissions, wealth of collaborations, and cross-genre versatility.
Landfall is an album as much as it is a documentation of devastation and loss. Inspired by Anderson’s experience with Hurricane Sandy, it develops its narrative through haunting acoustic music, ethereal electronics, and the gravity of Anderson’s unmistakable voice. The record evokes a beautiful sense of unease and confusion that retains a modern nuance and complexity over its episodic 30 tracks.
“CNN Predicts a Monster Storm” is a prelude to the devastation ahead. Mournful melodies and ominous drones attempt to prepare the listener for what lies ahead, but, really, nothing can. Garbled radio transmissions and looped electronics build up the textures of “Wind Whistles Through the Dark City” and “The Water Rises” as the quartet is enveloped by a digital storm, much like New York City was overtaken by the raging Sandy hurricane.
We don’t hear a word from Anderson until “Our Street Is a Black River”, and when we do it becomes the most chilling sound on the record thus far. Cold, objective, and devoid of emotion, she narrates how the rising waters rose up past the highway to flood the streets in front of her home. Her words with an unmistakable bluntness that may have radiated beauty on “O Superman”, yet utterly terrifies here.
The music written for Kronos perfectly encapsulates the terror and uncertainty of a vicious storm. The erratic lines of “Darkness Falls” seem untethered to any sense of reason while the haunting swells of “Built You a Mountain” provoke both dread and a sense of acceptance. Tracks like “The Wind Lifted the Boats and Left Them on the Highway” feature the quartet paying looped figures that blend in with electronic glitches and howls, with a violin occasionally singing out with a melancholy melody begging to be heard amidst the chaos.
“Nothing Left but Their Names” talks of extinction, specifically the extensive list of animals that have gone extinct from our planet. Anderson’s recorded voice is electronically slowed down, dropping the pitch a few octaves, almost as she is trying to hide any sense of personality. Still, her cadence is too distinct to mistake the voice for anyone else, making it a bleakly humorous moment on a record so focused on devastation and loss. It’s an odd moment of levity, more so contrasted with the talk of her flooded basement and the floating, ruined artifacts of her life on “Everything Is Floating.”
It’s difficult not to note how a good deal of Anderson’s recent work has dealt with to topic of loss–specifically, elements of 9/11 to the passing of her beloved dog to the death of her husband Lou Reed in 2013. As dark as Landfall is it is still underpinned by a sense of cathartic understanding that doesn’t invalidate the grief as much as it does make it manageable. It helps that the musical material on “Nothing Left…,” Kronos’s response in a way, conveys a sense of understanding and acceptance.
Landfall is a dark album, but it’s not without reflective, meditative moments. Contemplative tracks like “Another Long Evening” and “Helicopters Hang Over Downtown” radiate cinematic qualities. When Kronos isn’t blending into the electronic soundscape they’re responding to it; the live, intimate moments of violins, viola, and cello evoke a sense of humanity against the clinical repetition of glitches and radio transmissions. Even the 1980s dance vibe of “Never What You Think It Will Be” feels a little comforting amidst the shock and the suffering.
For their first official collaboration, Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet produced a haunting project that takes a stark examination of loss and devastation. For all it’s pathos there’s still a sense of detachment to the album, one that allows the listener to appreciate its beauty instead of continuously wallowing in misery. Landfall is a complex record that trades in gloom, comfort, and grace.