Even scarier than the nightmare is waking from it. You snap out of whatever horror you’ve cooked for yourself, look at the clock, and try to remember how to read numbers. The room feels like it’s in another country. You get up and check: the planet’s not shaking. No one is chasing you. No one you love has died. It takes a moment for waking consciousness to become concrete again. When it does, it comes with a strange, queasy relief. Eluvium’s Nightmare Ending simulates that reprieve, one slow wash at a time.
Plenty of ambient and drone music aims to disorient the listener, to place us squarely on alien terrain. Matthew Cooper’s Eluvium project has always valued comfort over estrangement. Each installment in his 10-year discography plays on us passively as nerve balm for the anxious. Though diverse in their delivery Talk Amongst the Trees grows its mood from distorted feedback loops, while An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death wields only piano these records act as gentle companions to work, sleep, or long stretches of boredom. Eluvium’s music fills whatever space in our attention we’re not actively using for something else. How much we give it is up to us.
Eluvium floats outside of the glass tubes that often encase ambient music. Cooper surely uses electronics of some sort to assemble his compositions, but, like steam rising from machinery, each album feels as natural as the air that carries it. The title of the 2005 track “New Animals From the Air” seems an apt metaphor for Cooper’s songwriting; rather than build new sounds from the ground up, Eluvium carves them right out of the fog.
Intended as a follow-up to 2007’s Copia, Nightmare Ending incubated while Cooper dove down a more pop-oriented channel in 2010 with two EPs and a full-length. Featuring both vocals and something like percussion for the first time, Similes showed that Eluvium’s elegiac movements could be mapped onto the verse-chorus-verse blueprint. This experiment in constraint proved to be the exercise necessary to finish Nightmare Ending, a double album that plays out as the sum of all Cooper has learned through Eluvium. The title could allude to the release that comes after a long period of creative frustration the feeling of finally getting it all out.
Longtime followers of Cooper’s work will soon find themselves on familiar ground in Nightmare Ending‘s first moments. A gilded drone rolls in on a hint of guitar stamped with simple, patient piano chords on “Don’t Get Any Closer”. Soon, a warm organ appears over the horizon, although like with any Eluvium record, the sounds feel detached from their sources. It’s easier to imagine Cooper stitching together plumes of smoke than it is to see him pressing keys at a console.
Performing the album’s only vocals, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan appears on closer “Happiness” amid piano, music-box triplets, and gentle horns. Unlike the lyric-heavy offerings on Similes, “Happiness” takes its time, yawning past the eight-minute mark. Kaplan’s timid vocals embellish a warm instrumental core, but don’t take up the reins of the song themselves. His words feel accidental. They’re not a statement like the philosophical quandaries proposed on “The Motion Makes Me Last”.
Like on Similes, Eluvium experiments with atypical percussion on tracks like “By the Rails” and “Envenom Mettle”. You won’t find the imprint of a kit or even discarded hand toys on Nightmare Ending — instead, Cooper etches beats right into the plasma of his songs. He keeps rhythm with repeated glitches and mechanical pulses. But most of the record, like his earlier work, doesn’t feel the need to divide time deliberately. It inhales and exhales like some giant, sleeping organism.
The album doesn’t travel a straight path, but meanders through Eluvium’s many modes of spectral beauty. Oscillating between drone pieces and brief piano interludes like ”Caroling” and “Impromptu (For the Procession)”, Nightmare Ending sometimes feels like two records spliced together. But it’s imbued with more depth and space than Copia, and employs a strategy perpendicular to that of Similes. Rather than work inside deliberate constraints, here Cooper allows himself to take up as much space as he feels like.
A few extracanonical sounds trickle in. Trains murmur beneath ”Unknown Variation’s” elongated fanfare, while ”Covered in Writing” punctuates its revolving chords with vocal snippets that seem plucked from a Boards of Canada track. Flooded with unmistakable Eluvium textures, Nightmare Ending permits itself just a few subtle, organic mutations. By filling two discs with what he does best, Cooper evolves his sound without forcing it. Sometimes you need to couch the new in the comfortable; sometimes you need to retrace every step before you can take the first step forward.
Nightmare Ending might be too big to work as a first-time introduction to Cooper’s music (either Talk Amongst the Trees or Lambent Material would do better), but it’s a loving summit for anyone who has been trailing him through the years. Those of us who have always wished that an Eluvium album would play for just a little bit longer can finally have our fill with this slow-spooling double LP.
Essential Tracks: “Unknown Variation”, “Rain Gently”, and “Happiness”