Our adult lives exist on a spectrum demarcated by domesticity and liberty. The stability of long-term companionship, steady employment, and home ownership comes at the expense of spontaneity, adventure, and wanderlust—and vice versa. Inevitably, those residing on opposite ends of the spectrum start to long for what the other has. For the working musician—whose very livelihood is a function of perpetual financial risk and chronic displacement—those poles shift further apart with each passing year, thus amplifying the cruel irony of trying to make a living so, that one day, they can enjoy a life that’s ultimately creeping further out of reach.
While the old adage says “there’s no place like home,” for Alex Zhang Hungtai home is no place. The music he’s produced as Dirty Beaches has amounted to an extended examination of the vagabond life, one that he comes by honestly. (Well before he became a touring performer, he had spent his formative years shuttling between Taipei, Hawaii, Montreal, and all points in between.) While his 2011 breakthrough, Badlands, romanticized the lone-wolf lifestyle with its impeccably pompadoured inhabitations of early-Elvis and Suicide-schooled bad-boy archetypes, the music he’s released since has focused on the flipside of that outlaw ideal: the constant sense of dislocation and isolation.
His electro-shocked 2012 album, Drifters and its soundscaped counterpart Love Is the Devil respectively captured both the hedonistic allure and homesick ennui of globe-trotting travel. But on Dirty Beaches’ latest release, that feeling of disorientation and disconnection becomes all-consuming—to the point of obliterating his Dirty Beaches identity altogether. If Love Is the Devil was a series of impressionistic snapshots cataloguing the many far-flung locales stamped on Hungtai’s ever-crowded passport, the all-instrumental Stateless captures the eerie sensation of waking up and not knowing where—or who—you are. After hearing this album, you’ll understand why Hungtai recently announced he’s retiring the Dirty Beaches concept: this is the sound of an artist who, after years of nomadic musical exploration, has reached the end of the road, with nothing but open water before him and a desire to submerge himself completely.
The pensive instrumentals on Love Is the Devil revealed Hungtai’s mounting interest in less theatrical, more introspective modes of expression. With Stateless, he finally achieves the state of pure anonymity that his work has been inching toward, fashioning four extended pieces that do away not just with vocals and rhythm, but identifiable melodic motifs altogether. As was the case with Love Is the Devil, the song titles serve as highly evocative headers to blank diary entries—but where its predecessor offered some geographic cues to help frame Hungtai’s free-form excursions (“Berlin”, “Alone at the Danube River”), Stateless deals in intangible, existential messaging: “Displaced”, “Time Washes Away Everything”, and so forth. Even the one recognizable locale—”Pacific Ocean”—is defined by its imposing vastness.
For all its seeming aesthetic and thematic open-endedness, however, Stateless proves to be the most focussed, tightly orchestrated release in the Dirty Beaches canon. For one, its two album sides share a similar arc, opening with a relatively shorter piece—both of which clock in at exactly 7:27—that set up longer works surpassing the double-digits mark. And where the instrumentals on Love Is the Devil had a more roaming quality—with Hungtai laying down wandering piano lines and serrated guitar shards as a gateway into his subconscious—Stateless is a work of deceptively serene, slow-roiling tension, liberated from traditional song structure yet claustrophobically contained at the same time.
Recorded in his current homebase of Lisbon, the album primarily features Hungtai on synths and saxophone, but, in stark contrast to that combo’s new-agey connotations, the tracks here are corroded in grainy, greyscale textures. With Hungtai’s staccato sax squawks woven into Colin Stetson-like oscillations alongside guest Vittorio Demarin’s trembling viola, the opening “Displaced” resembles the foreboding intro to a Godspeed You! Black Emperor epic (shut your eyes and you can practically picture the accompanying Karl Lemieux projections), but lingers on the sense of encroaching dread rather than deliver the crescendo rock-out. On the title track, layered synth drones form an oppressively thick mist under which Hungtai’s saxophone murmurs are barely audible, like foghorns emanating from some indeterminate location far off in the distance. For Hungtai, the ship is always arriving, but never settling.
Stateless’ second act eases up on the tension, and in its place, reveal subtle but forceful moments of emotional release: “Pacific Ocean” begins as a synth hum that’s as monochromatic and all-enveloping as the namesake body of water, but Hungtai gradually introduces affective chord changes that hint at all the wondrous subaquatic life that exists beneath the surface. And the immense 14-minute closer “Time Washes Away Everything” brings Demarin back for an exquisitely melancholic meditation whose intertwined, synth-swaddled viola and sax sweeps constantly seem to be on the verge of flickering out, before the embers come alight more brightly than before.
If Love Is the Devil was intended to challenge the expectations of fans initially drawn to Hungtai for the greaser persona and wild-child shrieks, then Stateless—fitting for a finale—proves to be the ultimate test of their commitment. The album’s stationary sound and glacial pace, ironically, make it a more demanding listen than Dirty Beaches’ more outwardly confrontational, punk-inspired previous releases. But coming from a musician who, not too long ago, could be easily slotted alongside other retro-fetishist garage-rockers, Stateless feels less like a sad, unceremonious farewell than the quietly triumphant completion of a mission, the final step in an ongoing process of deconstructing Hungtai’s prefab persona into something pure and personal. Before the news broke of Dirty Beaches’ demise, Stateless sounded like an audio analogue to Hungtai’s eternally unmoored existence. But now, it feels like the natural end point of Dirty Beaches’ unpredictable aesthetic evolution. In other words, it feels like home.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1GdnZB1