T Bone Burnett‘s music has always had the aura of sci-fi geek nerd about it, from his early efforts with the Alpha Band to his current project, the Invisible Light trilogy. He’s just released his second volume of the set, Spells, whose weirdo factor is even higher than usual. Two collaborators join Burnett: keyboardist/composer Keefus Ciancia and drummer Jay Bellerose. Together they create a dystopian vision of the future as the present. Burnett and company go high tech to attack high tech, except we already live in the future. It may be too late: think of publishing 1984 in 1948.
The lyrics offer whip-smart criticisms of technology and its users. Burnett’s manifesto is clearly stated on the opening track, “Realities.com”. We can isolate ourselves from unpleasantness, live apart from those we disagree with, and experience the ignorance of bliss and vice versa, but at what cost? This is not living life. One is being used as a consumer by big corporations, and most of the time, we give in willingly.
“It’s all happening at once,” Burnett sings on “I’m Starting a New Life Today”. The world we live in has no purpose and is headed nowhere. As the old saying goes, “There’s no time like the present.” People have given up their freedom for comfort. All hail the machine. Technology makes us all the same. We can settle for good. The universe is made of nothing; science proves that.
Or maybe not. The notes can be more informative at times than the music. A song like “A Better Day” floats along like an astronaut experiencing weightless in space without saying anything for about five of its eight minutes. The vocals themselves that do exist are stretched out and distorted. The atmosphere (or lack of it) matters. A wordless version of this song is reprised at the album’s end, perhaps to show nothing has changed throughout the musical journey. This version mixes choral chants, electric and acoustic instruments, musiq concrete, and electronics, before finally resting in silence.
“It takes more courage to love than to hate,” Burnett sings in an aggressive voice in “You May Leave But This Will Bring You Back”. He doesn’t sound very much in love. His voice gets overwhelmed by the strange technological noises and before the song ends he cannot be heard. “We are scared,” Burnett cries on “Mother Cross (We Think We Think)”, perhaps too scared to love. There is no courage to be found. We think but we don’t know. We are afraid. The “we” in Burnett’s universe are us, too chicken to rebel against contemporary existence because we have been lied to so much that we don’t know what’s true anymore.
The instrumentation and arrangements can be primal, martial, or formal then mixed with more contemporary electronic effects. The songs share heavy percussive beats that humanize the machine-link melodies. The funniest song is the 49-second “Itopia Chant”, which features an acapella call and response of disjointed voices speaking, “We want you to know you can learn anything”, but whose effect suggests that rote repetition does not equal learning. Itopia is an actual educational technology company.
In a world where television’s Stranger Things can inspire hit records and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters can tour arenas performing sci-fi spectacles, Spent may be considered somewhat mainstream. Burnett and company demonstrate that humanity has lost its purpose. Relax and turn your music machine on louder. You’ll want to hear this.