So, I recently saw Inception. Though the film has nothing to do with the new album from The Books, it is the kind of film that doesn’t quite leave your head as you discard half-eaten tubs of popcorn underneath seats and weave through clumps of oblivious children to the nearest bathroom because you have been seated for nearly three hours. Plus everyone else is talking about it, so I figure it is an easy way to get you to read an album review about a relatively obscure avant-garde duo. So, as I listened repeatedly to the hypnotic sounds of The Way Out, I couldn’t help but feel like you are traveling through the mind like the dudes (and cute little Juno) in the movie. But if I learned anything from the film (not sure that I did), it is that the mind is a fucked up place, and you probably shouldn’t spend too much time in someone else’s. That’s why The Books’ journey is so enjoyable, because the return to your own consciousness is promised in the title. The journey is not with0ut its bumps, but hell, what good trip isn’t?
“Group Autogenics I” begins the journey like any good hypnotism or sleep state: with drowsiness, relaxation, and, eventually, going under. This number and the one that follows begin the journey into the mind peacefully enough. Make no mistake, by six songs in all insanity will be breaking loose. But I enjoy the peaceful moments of The Books more as a listener. Not that “I Am Who I Am” isn’t a worthwhile song, but it is not something you enjoy listening to. It’s chaotic, disturbing, exhilarating, but ultimately it’s a dream that becomes a nightmare, a dream you are happy to wake up from. Following this track with another hypnotic song, “Chain Of Missing Links”, can’t be a mistake. Like a mind reading that uncovers a memory that shouldn’t have been discovered, the album and the journey needed this redirection.
But I am getting too far ahead of myself. If you are unfamiliar with The Books, they are a duo that takes found recordings, often spoken word pieces, and add their own original backing music, usually containing acoustic guitar and electronic elements. Think cut-up art, collages, or William S. Burroughs. So, with this in mind, the idea of taking hypnotism tapes and adding their own music seems like a logical step rather than a crazy whim, and it is completely effective both within the catalogue they have created and on its own. Would this be a good jumping off point if you were unfamiliar with their other work? You betcha!
But, as I alluded to earlier, there are times when the album is tough to get through, as the various samplings of recordings (they collected over 4,000 tapes in the creation of this album) evoke disturbing feelings. “A Cold Freezing Night” has many moments of children’s voices namecalling and threatening violence, evoking the idea that the journey through the subconscious has reached the childhood, and it wasn’t the best. There is ugliness on this track–a necessary ugliness–but it is hard to listen to children be so cruel to each other, and the listener can’t help but mourn the horrible things people do to one another and the very early age that this begins.
“I Am Who I Am” is also filled with darkness, and as the track title suggests, it asserts a certain terror that can be found deep in everyone’s head. These are places we avoid outside of therapy and probably shouldn’t be listened to by the medicated or borderline personalities among us. But the five of you who are left will really get a kick out of realizing how fucked up everyone around you really is.
But the album is called The Way Out, not the way in. What is most fascinating about the human mind is not the dark things that we hide inside but our ability to hide them at all. People can endure the abuses of parents, family, and lovers, and yet still thrive. So why not “relax” and “let go” as the hypnotherapist suggests? This peace is suggested on “All You Need Is A Wall”, a delicate song with an actual sung melody that shows just how you can avoid the past, avoid the dark side of your mind, and yet not avoid yourself.
But the two tracks that stand out above the rest are “Thirty Incoming”, which samples a series of answering machine messages, and “Free Translator”, which is the most traditional track on the album. Though there is sadness in both of these cuts, it is the kind of sadness you don’t mind revisiting. It is the type of melancholy that lets you know you are alive and lets you know that other people are in the same boat of emotion with you. These songs are neccessary to view The Way Out as an overall success. The record is not without its missteps (“The Story of Hip-Hop” feels sorely out of place) and is not as instantly demanding of revisits as The Lemon Of Pink, but it is a journey worth the effort and full of rewards throughout. Like Inception. Yeah.