English player Steven Ball continues his programme of solo releases with Abstract Vectoral Landscapes (TQ N-AUT 7), released on the new-ish UK label TQ N-aut (who have also put out records by Posset, St James Infirmary, Cursus, and Matt Atkins). Ball seems determined to push the “song” format as far as it will go without completely breaking it, introducing more layers of experimentation and elements of almost wilfully perverse obscurity. He’s been doing this since 2017’s Subsongs, if not earlier, each release trying on a different outfit of self-awareness and reflexion almost as if to challenge the listener, making us unsure where to put ourselves.
On today’s record, the most immediately obvious shift to my ears is the texture of the recording – Ball has gone for a kind of muffled semi-ambient sound, added a drum machine, and put his half-mumbled vocals a notch or two back in the mix. Right away we have a radically different sound from the previous outings of spare, clinical minimalism and cold bleak aspects – AVL almost feels like swaddling clothes set to a disco beat, were it not for the cryptic lyrics and strangely alienated tone. Then there’s the song form itself, all conventions like melody and verse structure dispensed with in favour of a linear, near-shapeless morass of murmuring, and what lyrical content escapes to the surface is extremely hard to decode. There may be traces of the kind of “urban wasteland” themes detectable in previous records, but it’s hard to be sure. The net effect of all this is pretty powerful; the songs seem to draw us into a foggy haze of uncertainty, yet also provide some vague comfort and warmth with their barely-moving pulsebeats; if these songs were translated into medical charts in a hospital, we’d have to say the patient was in a critical condition, which may be what Ball thinks about the UK political state just now.
This form persists, more or less, for three of the songs on the album – ‘Suspension’, ‘Polylingual’, and the troubling message-song ‘Grounded’. Only on ‘Sickness Country’ do we have a brief glimpse of clarity in the vocals and a return to the forlorn guitar-playing that surfaced on Bastard Island, and it’s a wry observation including what I suppose are rather sardonic comments on the way we continue to perceive our place on the planet through computer satellites and web browsers (recalling at least one moment on Subsongs where modern man was shown to be utterly lost without his Smartphone telling him who he was and where he was going). After this “James Taylor” moment – as close to singer-songwriters as Ball gets, notwithstanding his Bowie and Scott Walker aspirations – we have the title track itself, which closes the album and deploys the “obscurity” template on just about every aspect – buried vocals, muffled sound, miserable minimal beats, and barely a melody holding the whole wispy bag together. A testing listen, but it has a terrible sense of moment to it, as if observing the closing-down of all our hopes as an inescapable night slowly falls.
There’s also the typography on the front cover; maybe I’m reading too much into it, but inserting unexpected spaces into the words engenders a further “distancing” for us, as if splitting words into their constituent parts. But unlike the 20th-century Lettrists and Isidore Isou, who saw their work as a way of transforming society, Ball seems to be saying something about the very fragility of communication, how easily coherent sentences can disintegrate, with nothing between the spaces, leaving us facing the void. May be a tough message for us to hear right now, but I think this is something well worth engaging with. From 15th October 2019.