Sarah Neufeld : Detritus

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It’s both startling and pleasing how Sarah Neufeld has so deftly extricated her musical legacy from that of her former band, Arcade Fire. Once a full-time member, she has contributed violin on all of their studio albums from the epochal Funeral to the somewhat less than epochal Everything Now. In that context, she was (along with husband Colin Stetson) a key feature of the broader sonic palette of the band, appending her mournful and morose stringwork to songs that, in their absence, often now feel thin and too rooted in the snark of the indie era Arcade Fire arose from. But there was always an earnestness and bitter depth to Neufeld’s string work, a lyrical and aggrieved widow shrieking and wailing in the dust and fog of a dying world. It was a thing of gothic splendor, something that enlivened Arcade Fire at their best. This is not to say the overreaching statement that Neufeld was singularly responsible for the group’s best work; however, her contributions are in retrospect at least one of many key components that largely contributed to those greater works.

Her first major exploration outside of the context of Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre, took root in the sounds she had been exploring within the context of her more famous group, likewise appended with other musicians. The instrumentally focused Bell Orchestre was more capable of following the subtle sorrows and tribulations outlined in her playing, allowing her evocative and expressive violin work to weep and and dribble. This newer platform, one that removed the human voice and thus proved more capable of accepting the programmatic and melodramatic elements of Neufeld’s playing, seemed to extend her ambition and so, shortly after that group fell into hiatus, Neufeld released her first solo record. Shortly thereafter, she collaborated with Stetson on the record Never Were The Way She Was. These are the essential beats of history that thread together behind Detritus, her newest studio record, an album which extends the bold, dour melodrama of her lyrical playing with the same kind of throbbing breathlike pulses of Stetson’s own sax playing. Their fusion seems now no longer just marital but on some level psychic, the deep aggrieved contours of Stetson’s reinterpretation of Gorecki’s Sorrow finding themselves in recapitulation within Neufeld’s waves of strings much as that same reinterpretation felt in ways like imbibing his wife’s more intensively maudlin emotionalism into his own playing.

Detritus is of course more than just the fusion point of Neufeld and Stetson into a single record. Neufeld is her own person, and so the long threads of notions from her debut Hero Brother and its solo follow-up The Ridge make themselves known as well. There are gentle new age moments, lapping like water against the shore, not unlike fellow string player Andrew Bird’s instrumental Echolocations series of albums. Neufeld’s own brief experiments with vocals on her previous solo album especially when compared against the skeletal avant-gardeisms of her collaborative LP with Stetson see a similar fusion point here, producing work that feels as emotionally driven as vocal music but still dappled with the heaving and fracturing of the avant-garde. There is a clear resistance in Neufeld to resolving herself purely to art music; she is not so crass as to crossover directly to more pop music driven fare from the fringes, but is wise enough to incorporate those more obvious emotional cues and guiding structures. Detritus, unlike others in this sonic world, is no amble, instead driving deeply and immediately into the emotional terrains it wishes to explore.

Even the track titles seem more directly emotionally keyed to a clear and communicative aesthetic. Names such as “The Top” are hard not to associate with The Cure and their own muslin and lace post-psychedelic gothic music while “Tumble Down the Undecided” and “With Love and Blindness” bring to mind something between Siouxsie Sioux and Cocteau Twins. In each instance, the combination of deep sorrow and transcendent beauty is maintained, with that particular branch of goth rock being the birthplace of ethereal wave and its various dreamy offshoots, music with which Detritus feels a comfortable supplement if not an identical match. The common emotional imagery is maintained: oceans, drowning, swirling, being obscured and obscuring, suffocated in transparent scarves and endless gowns. Detritus is, after all, the wasted remains of the dead; combined with the contained but rippling emotionalism depicted here, it is hard not to see a throughline. In doing, Detritus causes us to look back and catalog that same mythic gothic sorrow she has brought to life in her body of work from Arcade Fire till now, a violin that seems not to sing but to shriek, emit the forbidding calls of preying birds monitoring in dark shadows and midnight hours, the fell specter voices of the departed clustering in windowless cloisters and unremitting stone. Neufield in general and Detritus in specific is the dark twin to her husband Stetson’s work; where his labors seem to radiate the effulgent persistent light of grace and the immortal spirit, hers are rays of darkness from the deep Hell of the human heart.

Label: Paper Bag

Year: 2021

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