By Ethan Cook
Nihilism is the belief that all personal and societal values are baseless. Themes of nihilism include a feeling of purposelessness, the inability to affect meaningful change, and an overwhelming pessimism about the future.
The long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our culture and society have already been hypothesized to death. The workplace, classroom, bar and just about every other societal touchstone has been irreversibly changed. This state of turmoil is not caused solely by the pandemic, but also by the confluence of an ongoing reckoning with the state of racial relations in our society, broad demands for economic reforms, and growing recognition of the impacts of mental wellness/unwellness. For many people, these factors create a sense of nihilism about the future of our country.
After an isolating year spent grappling with the pervasive issues of our society, artists have been releasing droves of albums influenced by the nihilistic streams of thought that flow through our cultural discourse. These works of art interpret nihilism in different ways; some explicitly and some more subtle. This piece highlights some of the best new releases of the year, all of them a product of the political, economic and societal forces of our times.
It is important to note that artists are humans, and humans rarely ascribe totally to one philosophical belief. In reality, their art is inspired by their feelings in the moment of creation. This piece aims to put the highlighted albums in the context of their time, not to pigeonhole their creators in a philosophical belief.
2. New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning
Back in April, Pitchfork released a list of their favorite under-the-radar albums from the year thus far. Tucked in to the middle of that list was Dry Cleaning's debut album, New Long Leg, and I was soon obsessed with the combination of intricate post-punk instrumentation and spoken word lyrics that felt almost mechanical. Despite being enthralled by the album, it took me a while to wrap my head around the music. The tracks certainly conveyed powerful emotions, but I struggled with how I could capture the essence of this music in my review. After weeks of writing and rewriting I landed on an analogy that captured everything I felt about New Long Leg; the analogy of a collage.
Dry Cleaning's frontwoman, Florence Shaw, is an enigmatic vocal force. Her vocal style; a bone dry and precise spoken word, give a weight and presence to an already above par post-punk band. The tightly wound punchiness of her lyrics become an instrument unto themselves, the actual meaning sharing the spotlight with Shaw's articulate and commanding delivery.
The combination of unmistakable delivery and collage-like lyrics, however, is where the real magic of New Long Leg can be found. Whereas Shaw's voice is hypnotically dry, the lyrics are anything but. Ruminations about hot dogs and questioning the motives of dentists are just a few of the many surreal places that the album takes us, giving us a final product that feels like a stream of consciousness from a narrator lost deep in a fever dream. Each track is like a collage; jumping from off the wall musings to vaguely political motifs and back again, challenging attentive listeners to find the connections between each line, if there are any to be found at all.
3. ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, Spirit of the Beehive
ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, the newest release from Spirit of the Beehive, opens with an electronic hurricane of noise – screeching synths, off kilter drums, and distorted shrieks – only to fade away to a hazy bedroom-pop vocal section. If this sounds disorienting to you, you're right.
The album as a whole feels disconcerting and paranoid, weaving together chopped up commercials, dark synths, and layered guitar parts. Each time a particular thread makes itself apparent for your mind to grasp hold of it fades away as quickly as it came. This gives ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH a listless feel. The songs present no obvious meaning, yet the blend of production and instrumentation conjures images of a world that feels like a visceral hallucination of a mundane apocalypse.
Underneath it all is a resigned nihilism. The track “THERE'S NOTHING YOU CAN'T DO”, for example, maintains a hazy mix of drum machines, voice samples, and guitar riffs that feel like wandering through a mall to kill time, fluorescent lights flickering overhead. Eventually the sickly sweet bedroom-pop descends into a storm of distorted bass and unhinged guitar, a cracking voice repeatedly screaming “Are we afraid?!”. The voice repeats the rhetorical question like a horror movie villain who already knows that their prey can't escape, leaving the listener in a cold sweat, almost as paranoid as the singer.
ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is a beautiful, visceral album. It forces the listener into uncomfortable places, demanding they look at the nihilistic reality created by Spirit of the Beehive. The tracks on the album captures the discontent and cosmic purposelessness that comes from not seeing a clear path towards a meaningful life, a feeling fully understood by a generation faced with a society unwilling to confront social inequities and unconcerned with the existential threat of climate change, among plenty of other issues. Spirit of the Beehive's paranoid, hyper-vivid hallucination is the nihilistic reality where everything falls apart and nobody is able to stop it.
4. For the First Time, Black Country, New Road
Black Country, New Road's latest release, For the First Time, is a dazzling synthesis of free jazz, manic lyricism, and abrasive delivery. This release from the young BC, NR firmly established themselves as part of the British post-punk vanguard. These bands, such as black midi and the aforementioned Dry Cleaning are united as musicians who tend towards the wordy and neurotic.
For the First Time is packed with the ebb and flow of frantic guitar playing, cascading baselines, and luscious horns and strings, instrumentation that provides the foundation for frontman Isaac Wood's captivating performances. Wood effortlessly slides from manic self-criticism to absurd storytelling, the various tones and themes interweaving to create a tapestry of sound and ideas. Songs like “Science Fair” chronicle a mysteriously sinister encounter between an acrobat and the narrator, while “Sunglasses” is a three-part argument between lovers, full of references known only to the participants, like an enraged “Leave Kanye out of this!”. The concoction leaves the listener off kilter and in awe of the tidal wave of music that Black Country, New Road unleashes.
Pitchfork likens the album to the experience of “catching a sworn enemy at an open-mic night and realizing, aghast, that he is destined for brilliance”, and honestly I couldn't put it any better myself. The emotions conjured by For the First Time are strange and opaque; discomfort, confusion, loneliness. These emotions reflect the underlying nihilism of a scene that trades in the stuff, a scene that Black Country, New Road is at the forefront of.
6. Further Exploration
The expression of similar themes through various mediums is always interesting to me, so I've compiled a multimedia “Further Exploration” list based on the themes of this essay.
Thanks for reading and peace out.
- Take this fun Dichotomy Test to reveal your inner nihilist!
- An article from the Guardian on the rising popularity of ‘sprechgesang' (a style of vocal delivery between singing and speaking)
- The @existentail.simpsons Instagram account.
- Michael Crichton's famous techno-thrillers (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain). Crichton's writing feels like watching the protagonist's world unravel in slow motion – decidedly nihilistic.
- Maybe Baby #53: Cope Culture, Haley Nahman's newsletter on the democratization of mental health terminology into our everyday vocabulary, terminology that often is used to describe aspects of a nihilistic outlook.