William Basinski‘s two major projects of 2020 seem to have been released out of order. The first, his collaborative Sparkle Division album To Feel Embraced, found the New York composer famed for the mournful decay of his Disintegration Loops embracing joy, kitsch and rhythm. Its release delayed for four years because of the uninterrupted parade of shit that’s been marching on since 2016, the album found Basinski playing his saxophone for the first time in years and having a hell of a lot of fun—something that was probably needed but contextually at odds with the lockdown lifestyle during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Just a few months later—ironically coinciding with the occupant of the White House receiving an eviction notice and much of the country breathing a collective sigh of relief and seeing a ray of hope for the first time in a few years—Basinski returns to an eerie, ominous mood with Lamentations. Much like Basinski’s other brighter, buoyant album of 2020, it’s a collection of compositions that dates back years—more than 40, in fact, with some of the pieces here taking root as far back as 1979. But its overarching mood is one of grief and loss. These aren’t the sounds of celebration or even fond remembrance, but the shadows that linger when something or someone is truly lost.
There is no mistaking the beauty that permeates each track here—like more concise variations on the theme of Disintegration Loops, or the haunted 78s that occupy The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, the loops on Lamentations gradually get lost in cavernous reverb, distorted decay or merely disappear into the ether. They fade in and out of consciousness like suppressed memories, each recurring melody like the sighting of an apparition in the corner of one’s eye. On a standout like “O My Daughter, O My Sorrow,” a swath of warbling strings gradually grows more claustrophobic as faint sounds of a woman’s vocal murmurs beneath, an ongoing struggle between the memory of someone and the crushing reminder of their absence.
While crafted from beat-free loops, the drones on Lamentations still carry more than mere suggestions of melody. Opening track “For Whom the Bell Tolls” oozes into frame like a portentous fog, while “Wheel of Fortune” seems to be pieced together from faint, overlapping echoes of big band jazz. The source material may be vastly different—it’s hard to really know for sure—but the end result is similarly chilling. If the latter is the sound of a lively music hall, it’s probably one where Resurrection Mary is looking for a waltz partner. And the 11-minute “All These Too, I, I Love” crackles and skips beneath a diva’s operatic performance, its progression a rare moment of sunlight glimmering out from the Pearly Gates.
Where Sparkle Division offered listeners a moment of self-care and permission to embrace fun when there’s so little of it to go around, Lamentations is a grounding in the all-but-certain pain on either side of that celebration. Through these 12 sometimes harrowing and frequently gorgeous studies, Basinski performs a musical seance, and the result feels almost like ghosts themselves are the ones providing the program of entertainment. While its timing might be ironic, it feels oddly appropriate. As the nation celebrates the promise of a new day, the potential to finally put some of our darkest days behind us, the aching drones of Lamentations serve as a reminder of how much we’ve lost along the way.
Label: Temporary Residence
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.