COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown dealt a blow to the livelihood of working musicians who perform for a living. But for certain industrious types who already had access to recording hardware (or software) within their own home, a lockdown can also be a fruitful time. Take former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo. People who have followed Ranaldo’s career for any length of time can tell you that he needs neither a band nor a fancy studio to make an intriguing recording happen. In fact, should you deprive him of all the usual luxuries of modern recording, that might encourage someone like Ranaldo to be even more creative. In Virus Times is a lockdown project through and through. Its sound, execution, and overall aesthetic stem from uncertainty and isolation. It may only be 22 minutes in length, but In Virus Times truly is the less-is-more release to end all less-is-more releases.
In the liner notes, Ranaldo states that the music was recorded in September of 2020. America had seen deadly spikes in COVID-19 cases during the summer and the death toll was on the rise. In addition to everyone’s pandemic-related anxieties, even more, uncertainty was in the air with the upcoming American presidential election. Feeling more anxious than inspired, Ranaldo grabbed his Martin guitar and hooked up two microphones to create the four numerically-titled tracks that comprise In Virus Times, a painfully naked and vulnerable instrumental album if there ever was one. Any extra noises that made their way into the recording were left alone.
“The casual home ambience,” explains Ranaldo in the same liner notes, “a siren or truck rumbling down the street out the window; someone talking around the table in another part of the loft; water running — intrudes at points.” These moments may catch you off guard if you’re not expecting them. But after you spin In Virus Times a few more times, it’s hard to imagine them not being in the final mixdown.
Lee Ranaldo does not use this moment to show off any flashy musicianship. If anything, he’s doing the opposite here. The first track, the album’s lengthiest one at seven minutes, sounds like Ranaldo is just testing the levels by plucking and slapping his strings one at a time and letting them decay in due time. His playing falls into more conventional as the track rolls on, but it never escapes its self-imposed nexus of the primitive colliding with the minimal. He even starts whistling at one point, an impulse that probably helps to paint the full picture of high anxiety.
Elsewhere, Ranaldo explores the reverberations provided by harmonics and how they can be stretched out in the mix. The third movement mixes this approach with his tendency to get stuck on one string for a while. Sometimes it’s the lowest one. Other times he sees how far he can go in muting a string while still (barely) producing a note. It’s the musical equivalent of biting your nails, which is probably the very point of it all.
The fourth and final track is the sound of Ranaldo searching for a tune among his noodling tendencies. The results uneasily teeter between depressing melodic figures and nervous habits that even latter-day John Fahey would find challenging. No, In Virus Times is not a fun album. Some of you may barely find it listenable. In this case, context is everything, and you don’t need to be neighbors with Mr. Ranaldo to understand what that context was. We all felt it and we’re all feeling the ripple effects of it still.