Music

Sneaks' 'Happy Birthday' Begs Us to Reconsider Musical Definitions

Photo: Sasha Lord / Courtesy of Merge Records

Sneaks' Happy Birthday is a worthwhile release for its insistence upon being categorized as music without a category.

Happy Birthday
Sneaks

Merge Records

21 August 2020

Growing up, I knew Pluto as "The Ninth Planet". It was smaller than the planets, erratic in its movements and its elliptical path. It was supposedly distant and cold. When scientists demoted Pluto to "dwarf planet" status, the change suggested that we reconsider how we define and classify what we think we know. What's the difference between a "planet" and a "dwarf planet"? Why would it matter?

Likewise, Happy Birthday, the nine-song 2020 release by Eva Moolchan (performing as Sneaks), begs us to reconsider our musical definitions. These days, we should be mindful of how we define an "album". With a short runtime, are we still calling these EPs? What about our definition of a "song"? Most of what's here is more like interludes with basslines. Listening to the lyrics, should we differentiate between "songcraft", "poetry", and "spoken word"?

Regardless of our definitions, Happy Birthday is an intriguing set, as fluid and as undemanding as a daily horoscope (if not as consistently cheerful), and it requires the listener to self-locate within its parameters. Moolchan presents us with a play on ambiguity, from the album title, which makes us wonder whether the album is a birthday gift to its creator or audience. Similarly, you'll wonder if the first track, "Do You Want to Go Out Tonight", sets up a question that's answered with an implied "No" by the final track, "You've Got a Lot of Issues".

And who, we might wonder, is the "You" potentially implied by the words "happy birthday" and explicitly stated in these song titles? Is it Moolchan herself, or someone else? To these ears, "you" rarely seems to be "us", as we are alternately roped into our head nods and toe taps by creative low-end percussive patterns that provide a sturdy scaffold for swarming and swirling synths. Think trip-hop mixed with something we might call "disco-lite". It's akin to the spoken word movement of the late 1990s, but without the attitude or bravado. Moolchan is much more disaffected and disarming. Like Pluto, this release, this album, this whatever-we-want-to-call-it, is a little distant. It's a little cold.

It's also pretty good. If anything, it's not boring. It's an amalgam, cosmic alchemy of identity signified by layered and disengaged vocals that sometimes talk, sometimes rhyme, and sometimes sing. Moolchan could be compared to rapper Serengeti, if you combined him with a subdued version of M.I.A. and a callback to Blondie. The repetition in her lyrics is reminiscent of an orbit, a circular event that signals a pathway rather than an artist spinning her wheels.

After all, birthdays are cyclical, yearly events, and we see this as a running theme in songs like "Mars in Virgo" (reminiscent of M.I.A.'s "XXXO" in terms of rhythm) and "Scorpio on Your Side" (which brings Blondie to mind). Both are catchy homages to the principles of rebirth, recurrence, and renewal.

All of Happy Birthday's song structures are decidedly non-traditional, but not for the sake of being contrarian. Rather, Moolchan favors atmosphere and rhythm in lieu of standard verses, choruses, and bridges. The one constant is the beating pulse of these songs, the unrelenting headache of sound. This experience is completely designed to raise questions ("What do you know about this world") without offering a lot of answers ("If you know something, tell us all").

Back when I thought Pluto was more than a dwarf planet, I learned that an astrological "aspect" was about the relationships and angles between planets. Here, there's a relationship between Sneaks/Moolchan and "you", the listener, as you determine what this music can do for you. It's an offering that might perhaps have been elevated by bolder statements, or at least intimations of an artistic statement. Nevertheless, Happy Birthday is a worthwhile release for its insistence upon being categorized as music without a category.

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