As a writer, designer and editor, I’m both a fan of and necessary user of language. So when it comes to hip-hop, I’m a fan of musicians’ words and stories. I don’t much care if you come strapped with a backpack or some weapon of choice, or even both. Just give me more creative rhymes, set scenes, and smart turns of phrase, please, less “uhhh” and “yeah.” This means I’m obviously down with someone like Aesop Rock, the Portland-based rapper who’s made a comfortable living transforming his constant discomfort into some of the industry’s most literate bars.
With help from Tobacco on last year’s Malibu Ken project, Aes seemed to be able to focus on the awfulness of people other than himself (or his perception thereof). He’s found another interesting concept on his own with Spirit World Field Guide, essentially a musical audiobook version of an almanac/journal for visitors to some fantastical alternate plane of existence. Inspired in part by recent trips through Asia and South America, the album’s central flaw is that Aes’ descriptions of and interactions with the settings of this new world still trade in the metaphors and realities of our actual one.
“A casualty of otherness, what the fuck’s an olive branch?” Aesop Rock asks in “Salt,” as the stranger-in-a-strange-land feel of Spirit World Field Guide alternates between the explicitly and obliquely gothic. “Gauze” descends a grumbling metal-guitar line into an instruction manual for Molotov cocktails, while “Pizza Alley” references a visit to Peru for spiritual enlightenment. Elsewhere, some of the album’s best rhymes and brassiest productions—“Dog at the Door,” “1 to 10,” “Flies”—appear to capture brief snapshots of Aes’ real life, beset as it may be by everyday inconveniences that pile up into paranoia.
The big trade-off for Aes’ impressive dictionary breadth is a catalog of tracks and albums that are so dense as to be insular. His constantly streaming vocabulary obscures meaning to most outside himself, at least beyond a long-acknowledged sense of broad psychological insecurity. He admits as much in “Jumping Coffin”: “The cheek swab came back half-amazing/Half of what he make end up on his lab apron.” And while he and his friends can craft beats that slap, these often feel like afterthoughts—the punch of “Marble Cake,” for example, is hidden 20 tracks deep.
Finding out just what’s going on in Spirit World Field Guide often feels like it needs its own field guide. In one breath we hear Aesop Rock caring about how a life was lived, in the next about dying alone and undiscovered, and in a third about possession from beyond the grave. He wants to simultaneously search for inner peace at the outer limits and condense mass quantities of weird energy into bite-sized nuggets. These efforts produce a collection of insights with complexity that amazes and confuses in equal measure.
Adam Blyweiss is associate editor of Treble. A graphic designer and design teacher by trade, Adam has written about music since his 1990s college days and been published at MXDWN and e|i magazine. Based in Philadelphia, Adam has also DJ’d for terrestrial and streaming radio from WXPN and WKDU.