To suggest that Living With Yourself is Mark McGuire‘s debut is a bit of a misnomer. The young, Cleveland-based experimental composer has released an untold amount of material on cassette and CD-R in recent years, much like Emeralds, the only slightly more well-known trio that McGuire continues to play an active role in. But, here it is, McGuire’s “full-length straight-to-vinyl/cd real real album album”, as he endearingly described it on his blog, and it’s superb.
Living With Yourself, which was inspired by “his family, early friendships and the problems that inevitably develop through years of knowing someone,” according to Editions Mego, the label home of both Emeralds and McGuire, is a wistful affair brimming with fondness and solemnity for the characters and stories that dot McGuire’s life to now. The music, like McGuire’s previous material, is devoid of sung lyrics or sounds, the only words sourced from tape samples recorded between 1991 — 1998 by he and his father, Mark McGuire Sr. These samples bookend the collection, spliced into its first and final songs, creating a language of memory that abuts the album’s ethereal guitar passages and subtle synth flourishes in a way that should touch anyone who’s ever camped in front of a TV with old home movies flickering across the screen. The recorded voice or image, after all, can add depth or new meaning to our otherwise hazy ability to recollect accurately.
Admittedly, the world that McGuire calls home, where the focus is almost entirely devoted to noise, drones, and/or texture, and where lengthy improvisations are not only expected, but welcomed, is typically not suited to the casual listener. Indeed, my first exchange with McGuire’s music came by way of “Let Us Be the Way We Were”, a 35-minute release comprised solely of that song. But, like any form of art that’s initially foreign or unsettling, repeated experiences with this type of music reveal an accessibility that rewards the wait. To hear McGuire slowly build loop upon loop of clean, delayed guitar lines is to hear patience and meditation put to music, a heady endeavor to be sure but one that ultimately has the potential to realign one’s conventional wisdom of song structure.
Living With Yourself gives us the best of both worlds. Though there’s much to admire in all of McGuire’s work up to now, at points his compositions can become unfocused, or needlessly unfurled over perhaps too long a period of time. Here, however, he’s kept only what’s necessary, drawing clean, oscillating lines with his guitar that when drawn out to 10 minutes, as on the mightily hopeful “Brothers (For Matt)”, impart the listener with a complete sense of fulfillment rather than, to put it bluntly, boredom. We’ve been invited into a subtle knowledge of the artist’s past, but to be overburdened with too many particulars (or, perhaps, one too many refrains of a loop) would be overkill. Moreover, McGuire’s new sense of brevity suggests a confidence in his writing abilities — “Around the Neighborhood” and “Moving Apart”, in particular, stop shy of the three minute mark, but they’re every bit as affecting as the lengthier cuts on the album.
Without lyrics, we’re left to interpret Living With Yourself through feeling and form, as well as the brief samples recorded when McGuire was a child. By those measures, the album emits a hopefulness and redemption that suggests McGuire is largely alright with how the first piece of his young life has played out. Or, at least that he’s made peace with it. The opener, “Vast Structure of Recollection”, with its bright acoustic guitars that lope alongside and around each other before crashing gently into a wash of electronic sound, indicates just that. Similarly, “Moving Apart” largely relies on a single, relaxed guitar melody that bounces atop a major scale unendingly, its calmness only partially belied by the quick slapback pace of McGuire’s delay setting.
Elsewhere, though much more infrequently, the album is enshrouded in a sober, more plaintive glow. “Clouds Rolling In” features the insistently growing din of a synth that creates an unease, a tension, which is sparsely found anywhere else on the collection. “Two Different People” and “Clear the Cobwebs” operate on a similar plane, each as soul-searching as a dusty old blues 45, only colored with a futuristic touch. Presumably, these songs articulate the moments of McGuire’s youth that he’s less keen on, or perhaps which caused the most consternation. But, like a screenwriter or a novelist, McGuire probably knows it is precisely these plot points that make a narrative worth telling in the first place, the messiness of the arc that gives our better days a beauty that can only be birthed in flame.
Living With Yourself, then, is the perfect title for this collection, a sequence of three words that says as much about our humanity as most lyricists could.