The London by way of Australia experimental artist Penelope Trappes reportedly said her recent album deals with “mortality, predestination, and empathy”. If that’s accurate, it does so in a mostly non-narrative manner. Trappes’ intent may be true in her own mind, but to enjoy Penelope Two one has to buy into the whole mystification of life she proposes. The ten tracks operate as little rooms in which we can ponder fate. That can be heavy. There is little joy to be found on this record although sometimes a bit sneaks in. Otherwise, the darkness triumphs over the light.
Or put this another way. We all die. We are mortal beings. If predestination exists, everything that happens has already been determined by God. Not only does God know everything, God’s omniscience controls our destiny. So do not mourn for the death of a loved one. It is all part of God’s plan. But despite some rapturous interludes, Penelope does not seem blissful or ecstatic about that fact. At best she sounds melodramatically empathetic.
Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has notoriously warned us against empathy because it makes one vulnerable to biases. Instead of being clear-headed and compassionate, Bloom said that empathy can make us blind and irrational to the reality of a situation. In this case, Trappes seems removed from the more blissful aspects of living. The person she sees in others are just reflections of herself. Her empathy has cut her off. She retreats into herself and finds sadness dwelling there.
Trappes said this album was “built around field recordings, meditations, guitars, synth drones, piano, and reverb”. It’s best when she combines the natural sounds, say of rain, thunder, and birds, with a drone and falling chords, as on “Kismet”. What was meant to be may be. Even so, the album is a difficult album to enjoy on a surface level. There are grating noises and buzzes meant to evoke various states of contemplation that offer little solace.
Consider “Burn On” for example that begins with the tolling of bells and enigmatic lyrics about how the time has come before the song wanders lazily over bird calls, street sounds, and silence. The presumed point is that one needs to unclutter one’s mind from the noise, but for what purpose? If there is only nothingness that remains, one could argue that clamor should triumph. The din outside is the world. If one listens, perhaps one can find meaning in the clatter. We are but empty vessels whose emptiness should not be celebrated lest we live in a vacuum. Hell may be other people, but that doesn’t mean we should be alone.
Perhaps this is too philosophical or even too religious a way to analyze what Trappes does. But with track titles such as “Silence” and “Exodus”, the composer suggests these interpretations. When she personalizes, as on “Maeve“, she is able to “let go” more, as she sings nebulously (is it she or Maeve or both of them who needs to let go?).
Trappes has created a photo book and video to go with Penelope Two whose stark images appropriately mirror the sounds. She possesses an artistic sensibility whose deep feelings leave her feeling isolated but not necessarily demoralized. As in the pictures, Trappes finds being naked of value in that it allows her to be herself. Listening to her recent release may make one feel solitary. That’s kind of the point. There are times when we all need to be private: alone together in this world because none of us know what’s next.