Jake Webb, the multi-instrumentalist behind the largely solo avant-rock project Methyl Ethel, set up shop for his latest album, Are You Haunted?, in Fremantle Recording Studios. That’s where he recorded his 2013 debut EP, Guts, but the studio is also significant because it was founded by DJ and producer Brian Mitra, Webb’s high school friend and sometimes collaborator who died in 2018. While Webb says the two weren’t close, they shared enough memories, either personally or creatively, that Webb is still affected by Mitra. “I think about him every time I’m in [the studio]. [He] is my ghost. My person. It’s important to me,” he told The Guardian.
Taken in that context, the electronic, piano-heavy Are You Haunted? reflects Webb’s pondering, existential state of mind. The nine tracks invite others to ask themselves the same questions: Are ghosts ever really gone, or do they linger in our subconscious? Who or what has shaped who you are today? Webb has crafted a soulful, moody synth pop album on Are You Haunted?, one that sometimes feels conflicted. It’s as if Webb is caught between dwelling on morose feelings from the past and embracing more upbeat ideas of a positive future.
On this album, Webb seems to be looking for answers in graves and ghosts while questioning conventional norms. Though the lyrics remain vague, he hints at fears of phenomena like global warming and online misinformation campaigns, facets of daily life that are now the norm. For example: “ghosting” today means a sudden loss of communication in a romantic or friendly relationship. Webb’s song of the same name speaks to that social severance, but places it in the context of a sanitized death. The lines “you were never a survivor / just a poor lost soul,” overworks the sentiment. But the lyrics cleverly shift in increments, like subliminal wordplay. “I got the good shit” becomes “I’m on the ghost ship,” sowing new doubt for the listener.
“Castigat Ridendo Mores,” a satirical reference that’s rooted firmly in the album’s theme, amps up the quirk with a warped synth bridge. Labyrinthine and gauzy sound effects add to the restless, wandering feel, while shimmering strings and decisive, soulful piano strikes create a solemn soliloquy. “Kids On Holiday” implies a wish to revert to childhood while connecting with to the album’s theme. With cascading piano notes, slippery synths and spare production, the song’s groove and decisive percussion is more upbeat and dance-oriented. Webb often repeats phrases, almost as if doing so will unlock a new realm of dreaming or understanding. But this repetition can sometimes make his message a bit too hazy.
Other dark lyrics hinting at religious undertones. On “In a Minute, Sublime,” Webb is putting the someone on a pedestal or cross (“Your ghost I keep on solitary staves.”) The song’s sweeping, warped synths feel like a summoning chant, though the mantra “what a lonely, heart-strung feeling to be out of time / in a minute, sublime” while effective, feels a little heavy on drama. “Matters,” inspired by the San Andreas fault, is another upbeat dance-oriented song with frantic overtones. The lyrics “Lose my balance on the asphalt on a bend,” and “I’m busy in erosion don’t shake me awake,” create a strangely disorienting environment.
“Proof,” with backing vocals by Perth native and singer/songwriter Stella Donnelly, supplies shuffling synths and choppy strings for romantic tension and a sense of urgency. The refrain “I’ve got numbers to clear things up for you / take a chance on proof / if you want to?” challenges those eschew facts for fear. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what message Webb wants to convey because the album’s tempo and energy fluctuates so much. Feeling wounded and troubled, Webb’s voice trails along on “One and Beat.” The energy lowers, then shifts into a techno-dance section and heightens intensity until it peaks with the chorus, adding an overdramatic element. Webb’s own haunting vocals add an ethereal element. Deep with emotion, his vocals drape over its surroundings. Every note is carefully emoted and matched. His voice is his best weapon.
Art rock generally approaches music from odd angles as it challenges mainstream genres. It’s possible Are You Haunted? is Webb simply seeking a study on ghost hauntings, those fabled beings that overstay their welcome. Maybe he just wants listeners to disconnect from the internet and live in the 3-D world from where we came. Are You Haunted? provides that much-needed unplugged escape. Though he doesn’t take all of these ideas to their most challenging conclusions, Webb smartly leaves the door open to let you find your own interpretations of proof.
Label: Future Classic