William Basinski’s ‘Lamentations’ is torturously enchanting

Photo of the cover of the Basinski album, "'Lamentations'"
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Grade: 3.5/5.0

It is difficult to write so frequently about death. But these days, what else is there to write about?

William Basinski’s Lamentations, like so much of the avant-garde composer’s work, is fixated on ghosts. It is the soundtrack to the spaces occupied by the dead, to battlefields revenants, to oceans teeming with the drowned. It is by no means a summer listen. It is, however, perfect for pale moonlight or drab thunderclouds. Lamentations is cloaked in an ambient eeriness, an atmosphere that embodies dozens of lost souls, an anthology of the forgotten. It is brilliant. It is harsh.

It is a thematic return to loss that Basinski is all too familiar with. Even before his infamous Disintegration Loops, Basinski’s work has focused on death, dying and loss. It is heartbreakingly intimate, circular and vague. It is shrouded in a dry mist. It is best described with metaphor.

Lamentations is no different from the rest of Basinski’s work — at least, not in this manner. It is still the same shuddering, pale music. And yet, the album preserves Basinski’s signature sound without miring itself in self-mimicry. Basinski’s repetition here isn’t one of artistic, career-spanning recycling. It is a different kind of repetition that abounds on the album, as music folds in on itself like a nonorientable manifold, baffling and reflective.

The record is simultaneously a lighthouse in a tempest, a polar bear in a blizzard and a streetcar in a monsoon. What is most impressive about Lamentations is how it separates itself from Basinski’s previous work with its anthological nature, each song telling a different story of a different ghost. The same shapeless, mechanical aesthetic unifies the album’s stories, but a variety of different approaches and sounds allow each song to take on a life — or, more appropriately, death — of their own.

There is the earthshaking and guttural “Silent Spring,” a giant lurking beneath the foothills, a winter storm setting in. It is an ambient, windy track, one that is set in contrast to “Transfiguration,” whose apocalyptic sirens and deep bells ring out from a firebombed church. There are the staggered waltzes of “All These Too, I, I Love” and “Please, This Shit Has Got To Stop,” two hauntingly titled songs with appropriately haunting auras.

In fact, it is these songs, along with choral track “O, My Daughter, O, My Sorrow,” that perhaps offer the best insight into the world beyond, into which Basinski seems so desperate to listen. These songs adapt bygone melodies and styles, corrupting and transforming them into archaic echos, less than a century old. Basinski’s music often tells the tales of 20th century spirits. Lamentations tells such stories with a keen ear and an open soul.

Lamentations doesn’t just fixate on wide, ambient darkness. “The Wheel of Fortune” bucks this dour focus, allowing bright light to break into the song, like shattered stained glass windows in the August afternoon. “Tear Vial” is similarly bright, as its draping piano melody plays out like a YouTube lo-fi track without the 808 drums or atmospheric sound of rain on a window. It imparts these feelings with ease, but it feels no need to state them explicitly.

That implicit understanding can wear on the listener. It is unavoidably boring. It is long and meandering and dull. Listening to Lamentations is like watching a moth fight a lightbulb: repetitive, flickering and ultimately fruitless. In a word, it’s ambient. Ambient music does not always have to be painfully boring or long. Lamentations is.

This is precisely the point. To Basinski, life is painfully boring and long. His music conveys exactly what it is meant to, and stems from the privilege of longevity that millions of ancestral and contemporary souls will never know. Basinski’s work has always been for a class of people with a lot of spare time on their hands.

Who has more spare time than the dead?

Crew Bittner covers music. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @weakandrewwk.