Muzak for the Manic
Critics can't stand [ambient] records, by and large, because in their search for eternal adolescence they still want it all to be spunky and manic and witty. They come back to rock music again and again, expecting to feel like kids. That isn't what I want from music anymore—not in quite that way. I'm interested in the idea of feeling like a very young child, but I'm not interested in feeling like a teenager.
—Brian Eno, 1982
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
How do you write about an album that is bent on being anonymous, that not only exists within but helped define a genre where success is determined by its ability to exist in the background? How do you assign words to tracks that reject them, that have ambitions so wholly beyond simple signifiers that the idea of titles is rendered unnecessary? Ambient music is difficult to write about because it elides many of the elements that make us excited to write about music in the first place: conversations between chords, the poignancy of matching melodies, shifting dynamics that pull at your gut. This album, though, attempts to reinvent communication altogether. Where do you start?
That album is Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II. To coincide with the 20th anniversary of its Warp release, Bloomsbury published a book on the album in their 33 1/3 series, written by Marc Weidenbaum. He is the former editor of Tower Records' Pulse! magazine, and founder of the eighteen-year-old Disquiet.com, a blog dedicated to ambient music. Weidenbaum started by listening to one song from the album every day for a year. He would play it over and over again, until he knew each track in its smallest and most intimate details. And then he would write. He would write about what he heard, what he thought. He wrote a book's worth of this material, then put it in his desk drawer and started over.
This is what the album does to you. Like Brian Eno before him, Aphex Twin (real name Richard D. James) is one of those rare artists who inspire unabashed cultish geek-dom. And Weidenbaum is a bona fide geek. Fortunately, the 33 1/3 series, with each book dedicated to a canonical album, is the ideal platform for such geek-dom. This, the 90th in the series, is rooted in the musical milieu of the mid-'90s. Necessarily so: ambient music is nothing if not functional. It serves a purpose, and is an artifact of the time into which it was born. The album was both a product of the rampant rave culture of the era, and its necessary counterpart. The music was played in "chill out rooms," safe spaces at raves, where calmer music provided a respite from the dance floor.
Selected Ambient Works Volume II is arduous. Like the pictures used in place of song titles, it's a mix of the metallic and blurry with the green and natural, the electronic with the organic. It's an album full of paradoxes and dichotomies: beats vs. beatlessness, fragility vs. density, words vs. images, a diffident style vs. a welcoming sound, tranquility vs. a sense of foreboding. However, the relationship Weidenbaum is most concerned with here is the one between time and timelessness. And with good reason, as the idea of changing time is at the heart of the album, even if that heart is just barely beating.
Of all the Eno edicts to reach for when talking about ambient music, Weidenbaum is concerned with one in particular: "Repetition is a form of change." Repetition is not mutually exclusive from change; they can exist harmoniously: that's why ambient music exists. Take the first purposely ambient album—Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Conceived while he was laid-over in an airport in Cologne, the music is for an environment that suggests travel and movement and changing time, but is itself stuck forever in place. Likewise, Selected Ambient Works Volume II exists in a state of perpetual transience, the place where the beat becomes the beat-less, where notes become sound become sound wave, like a dance song stretched at its edges to eight times its original size. If Eno's record was for airports, staring out and watching people depart for any- and everywhere in the world, Aphex Twin's is for listening to at the destination, as the plane lands in an unfriendly and unrecognizable place, worlds removed from the one you expected. This is what Weidenbaum leaves us with: the fact that, even after countless listens, the album is as fresh and impenetrable as the first time you heard it:
Listening to Selected Ambient Works Volume II, one might wonder if this is pop music after pop music lost its stamina, after it had gotten old, after it had had to learn to be slow, how to be emotional at a modest pace, out of necessity [...] this Aphex Twin album is both old and new at the same time, an old version of pop at the end of its time, and something new for the next generation to call its own [...] It is both the zenith and nadir of a cultural sine wave.
The book is worthwhile, but is not for the casual Aphex Twin fan (if one exists). Weidenbaum's book is as meticulous as the album he's discussing. At its weakest, the work reads like a solipsistic over-analysis of a record that was designed to preempt such things, flirting with that point where passion tips into obsession—for example, he spends pages examining the semantics of the rhetoric used when talking about Aphex Twin's early albums. At its best, though, it's a celebration of musical geek-dom, that thing we've all felt: pure and raw and painful love for an album, to the point where it's not just the one thing in the world we want to listen to, but the only thing that will listen to us.