The title of Laetitia Sadier’s latest record immediately puts me in mind of Mullholand Drive. A woman on a stage at a club called Silencio, Rebekah Del Rio, singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish, collapsing on the stage, the music continuing, Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring, who had both begun weeping uncontrollably during the song, staring on in shock as what they had thought to be a live performance is revealed as a recording being lip synced. Richard Green, the emcee, steps back onto the stage, “silencio,” he says, “No hay banda.” There is no band. Laetitia Sadier’s record isn’t about this uncoupling of the effects of a song and the presence of its singer, but it is concerned with a different sort of falsity, the kind that holds a stifling political climate in place, or overlays and conceals the voice of silence, which is never really absolute, which is the voice of spaces, their singularity, their surprise, their life.
To begin from the end, “Invitation au Silence” features a recording made in an old church in the south of France, Sadier’s voice in French, followed by an English translation, the final few minutes given over entirely to the ambient sound of the church and tape hiss, perhaps the sound of a car, these sounds of course mixing with whatever sounds are around you as you listen, or surrounding you if through headphones.
I don’t think there is any sort of absolutely coherent thesis on silence running through this record, but it is certainly a thematic thread connecting some songs: “Silent Spot” and “Auscultation to the Nation,” most obviously. The latter sounds like it a relative of the music Sadier wrote for Phil Collins documentary Marxism Today. Auscultation is the term for the act of listening to the internal sounds of the body, revealing what is normally not perceived, what is normally part of silence, as a constantly present source of sound. In Haunted Weather, David Toop discusses the experience of being in an anechoic chamber, a room which dampens all sound and blocks out light, and indeed the sounds of the body make themselves disturbingly present. Sadier’s song, like a lot of those gathered here, is overtly political, and if there is a body she wants to auscultate it is the body politic. Why do we allow our lives to be governed by rating agencies, financial markets and the G-20? That is the central question. But no device can render any single reason behind this audible, comprehensible. She is singing into the silence. The sound of the song is urgent, distressed but pensive. The straight up political agenda of the lyrics does nothing to prevent it becoming a peculiar sort of earworm.
In fact, it’s nice to hear a record where you are supposed to hear the lyrics, where it not only feels as if something is at stake by way of the music, but what is at stake is clearly outlined by the words. Doubtless, Sadier’s political critiques sometimes feel almost clinical. What’s Going On this is not. Nor, of course, was “Ping Pong,” probably the best articulated political statement Stereolab ever recorded, not to mention the sunniest take-down of Capitalist contradictions managed by a pop song. But Sadier isn’t playing the serious lyrics/joyful music game here. There are plenty of shadows in the music. “The Rule of the Game” takes shots at an upper class caught up in cruel games and meaningless pleasure, taking inspiration from Renoir’s film, La Règle de jeu (The Rules of the Game). The feeling is sober and melancholy, lyrically and musically. But then everything goes haywire with around a minute left, and the track becomes a burst of energy and optimism, wordless, delivering us to the rest of the record with a sense of overcoming contemporary emotional and political derangement.
All of that said, “Merci de m’avoir donné la vie” is my favorite song on the record and I don’t understand a word of it. (The mangled translation given to me by the Internet suggests that the title is something like “Thank You for Giving Me Life.”) Since it begins with a mood of slight dread, carried along slowly by the bassline, that title seems somewhat interesting, especially as the last half of the song is dominated by a wash of synthesizer chords that are pure release, a release kept in check by the bass and Sadier’s vocal, which strangely is transfigured in this new environment, its tone only slightly lightening. There is something ambiguous about it that is alluring. This isn’t absent totally from the political songs, or the songs that are in English, but this one just feels more like magic to me, which is perhaps what I most like music, sound and silence to be. A Lynchian world of unattributable sensation. Anyone who is afraid of pretention or being condescended to may well be affronted by some of Sadier’s lyrics, or the thematic preoccupation with silence, which is more quirky than calculated. Anyway, aspiration in rock music — God forbid. While this record is in no way a total success, Sadier’s ambition, outspokenness, savvy and songs are always welcome presences.
Stereolab – Mars Audiac Quintet
Broadcast – Work and Non Work
The Sea and Cake – Everybody