In PopMatters‘ recent interview with composer William Brittelle, he describes his approach to religion as an “essentially non-religious Buddhism… I don’t believe or not believe in reincarnation or karma… It’s just more, for me, a way of trying to stay calm and centered and focusing on those aspects.” This view can count itself among the increasingly growing constellation of beliefs classified as “spiritual but not religious”. For people who see themselves in that category, spirituality is not accessed through the strictures and creeds of a single organized religion, but rather common practices and shared languages which provide them with the means to access a perceived transcendent, whatever that might be. This type of worldview is not for the reductive physicalist, who sees nothing beyond the bare materials of our bodies and the world around us. Instead, it’s for those who – while rejecting the standard formulations of religion – nonetheless sense that there is a there, there.
What is the “there” for Brittelle? As is the case for so many non-religious spiritual people, the answer proves difficult to locate with precision. Brittelle grew up in a religious and conservative home in North Carolina, an upbringing from which he has since broken strongly. That break is the source of Brittelle’s latest recording, Spiritual America, a seven-track “electro-acoustic song cycle” released jointly by Nonesuch and his longtime label New Amsterdam. In reconciling his religious past with his non-religious present through the medium of music, Brittelle faced the challenges inherent to those who seek to articulate any metaphysical realm. The raw materials for the music are “these abstract, truly emotional things”, which are difficult enough to express in musical form, let alone, as he put it, “for a press release”. Hearing Spiritual America, one cannot help but think there is a there there. Brittelle clearly tapped into something potent and real. Predictably, however, given how vexing matters of the spirit are, this song cycle is no less inscrutable than the spiritual issues which led to its creation.
Featuring collaborations with Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack of Wye Oak, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Metropolis Ensemble, Spiritual America melds together dozens of genres and aesthetics into a cacophonous yet beautiful soundscape. “Abbatoir” and “True Hunger” present a litmus test to the listener: if you can’t hook into what those pieces are doing, then you’ll likely end up lost not long after. Mournful strings and high voices open the song, while synths and electric guitars intermittently interject dissonant notes. The airy vocals of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus sit at the center of the song, but it’s a small anchor against the restless arrangements which swirl around them. Voices sing, but the surrounding music forms a jagged sonic terrain which only becomes more tricky to navigate as the song cycle develops.
“True Hunger” best captures Brittelle’s polyvalent compositional style on Spiritual America. Like “Abbatoir”, the song starts by juxtaposing clean vocals with harsher sonic elements, in this case, a buzzy synthesizer. Then a triumphant horn section enters, its major key an indication of brighter things to come. But the horns barely have time to establish themselves; suddenly, they’re followed by a plodding electronic beat accompanied by sharply bowed violins, a dramatic plunge into a dark place. That, too, does not get the chance to blossom into something, as the lead vocals guide the music quickly back into what small semblance of a linear progression exists in the song. In its concise five minute length, “True Hunger” volleys between emotions and dynamics, genres and techniques. Rapidly sung lyrics by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus are answered by shredding lead guitars straight out of the 1980s. This almost collage-like approach to composition can be jarring, and throughout Spiritual America it often is. Yet when it works, as it does on “True Hunger” and other album highlights like “And Topaz Were the Waves”, Brittelle conjures a musical phantasmagoria that succeeds because it sheds conventional songwriting logic.
By the time Spiritual America wraps up, leaving in its wake as many questions about its spiritual dilemmas as there were when it began, the label “song cycle” proves insufficient in characterizing this music. The capaciousness of these seven songs (and an eighth bonus track, a reworking of Wye Oak’s “I Know the Law”) makes it such that these tracks become difficult to remember individually when taken as a whole. Because these songs splinter off into so many unexpected directions, it’s as if each of the Spiritual America tracks contains several tracks within them. Take any single song here out of its album context, and it’s hard to imagine what could have proceeded it, or what will succeed it. Best to listen to Spiritual America in a single, uninterrupted listen, and let Brittelle’s mind lead yours down labyrinthine musical paths.
With good reason, some will find Spiritual America simply overstuffed, brimming with so many musical ideas it can seem as if Brittelle turned off any self-editing mechanism. At times, the record meanders, particularly around its midpoint “Forbidden Colors”. But when Spiritual America matches its ambitions, which it does quite often, Brittelle proves himself to be a thoroughly innovative composer: unencumbered by genre expectations, open to alternative approaches to arrangement, and above all else, true to his own vision. And, in the end, this is music about the spirit, and on that subject, there are no straight and paved paths, no neat logical order. Why should we expect music of the spirit to be any different?