Mathew Lee Cothran’s Judas Hung Himself in America is a worthy addition to the electro freak-out canon, and a vital album for our time.
I. The electro freak-out
-- Kanye West
"The transcendental voice in the age of Auto-Tune"
-- Tim Hecker
The electro freak-out is a tradition that this decade has seen bear extraordinary, virtually can’t-miss fruit. From Kanye West’s global event Yeezus to the apocalyptic influences on Sufjan Steven’s The Age of Adz, auteurs who usually dealt in agreeable sounds shifted their energy to something much more challenging. Best known as a member of beloved lo-fi group Elvis Depressedly, Mathew Lee Cothran’s Judas Hung Himself in America is a worthy addition to this canon, and a vital album for our time.
Yeezus, for all its proselytizing minimalism was still, at its core, an expensive album. Though the production was often meant to highlight its stripped-away qualities, it’s hard to square that with post-Lex Luger act TNGHT’s being sampled on midway standout "Blood on the Leaves". Instead, a truly minimalist effort in this vein would be Judas, in which the most instruments being heard at once are, at most, four, if that, on "Liquor Store". Apart from that, guitar, bass, drums, and synths weave their way in and out of compositions, but for the most part serve as a backdrop for Cothran’s consistently quiet, assured vocals.
These vocals traipse from unedited performances to the most interesting vocal aspects of the record: when he uses Auto-Tune. In a wide-ranging interview with Gold Flake Paint, Cothran pointed to Lil Yachty and Chief Keef as touchstones for this usage, but in doing so, the presence of 808s & Heartbreak looms ever larger. Like with Keef, these moments of Auto-Tune are employed to completely drown his performance, masquerading lyrics under the guise of pure feelings. The aforementioned "Liquor Store" does this, while the crown jewel in this regard is one of the songs vying for the album’s best, "Wild Life (Let Me Know)". That song, whose stand-out quality from Cothran’s previous works is reminiscent of Allan Kingdom’s "I Feel Ya" from last year, has the vocals rivaling the Twin Peaks-esque keys in metallic quality and the lyrics hitting on the religious aspects of previous Elvis Depressedly cuts with a stance on mortality that is at once fearful and comforting.
"God, I’m not ready to die," he sings, the context of this album’s creation dangling above each syllable like the sword of Damocles. Cothran’s grandfather, whom Mathew listed as his sole influence in a 2014 interview with Impose, passed away and is to whom the album is dedicated. This sense of immense loss shapes the sound of the work, as its minimality can be seen in a new light, one in which there are few sounds and fewer words just because each has to be necessary, for there is no time to waste when life is, as Joanna Newsom put it, thundering blissful towards death.
II. Alternate history
"And [Judas] cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself."
-- Matthew 27:5
"Judas hung himself in America."
-- Mathew Lee Cothran
Judge things by media coverage and alternate history is having a moment. Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is the marquee streaming show for one of the world’s largest corporations, while the Trump administration has inspired no shortage of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America references in recent weeks. Sure, we can learn things from these what-ifs, but the truth of the matter is that they were born of different eras. They may reflect eternal truths, but for specifics, we should defer to things of our time. In this way, Cothran’s inspired retelling of Judas’s suicide in America and the auxiliary stories that come along with it add up to an examination of our present nation.
"Like many outsider artists before her, Farrah Abraham’s music raises questions about expectations, intended audiences, and motivations of the artist."
-- David Cooper Moore, The Atlantic
Farrah Abraham took the trajectory of many of the modern era’s pop stars: appear on a television show, release an album. It’s that simple. The television-music pipeline is as American a tradition as elected officials becoming lobbyists. Unlike the Britney Spears types, however, who became ubiquitous in the most honest sense of the word, Abraham’s pop album, My Teenage Dream Ended, exists as a curio for pop culture obsessives and national psychologists alike. On it, she uses Auto-Tune at times, the American tradition of masking imperfection with technological gloss ever apparent. She, as a reality star, exists on the periphery of American celebrity but had enough name recognition to believe this album was warranted. It’s not all that different from the recently released Rather You Than Me by Rick Ross, in that it is wholly unnecessary and dependent upon the previous achievements of the creator to carry its creation. Ross, too, is an all-American story, as a man who willed his wealth into fruition by talking about it incessantly.
The America of Judas Hung Himself in America is not as opulent. Instead, it examines the stifling feelings of living in a nation where everything is at your fingertips ("Judas took his paycheck to America / But there’s no place to buy peace of mind") and dissent is still omnipresent ("America forever / Entwined and rotting beneath our feet / The roots of a riot / That rages and rests in peace"). With its grainy quality, this music feels how the abandoned steel mills characterizing one of America’s most prominent economic woes looks. But, anarchists are fixing potholes. America forever.