Since the release of Sparkle Division’s To Feel Embraced, William Basinski has announced an album that seems like it’ll be perfectly appropriate for this dismal year. If you’re looking to commune with the world’s grief, or if you need sounds that recognise the painful experiences you’ve been through, that album might help you. But what if you’re tired of having 2020 tell you how to feel? What if circumstances beyond your control have wreaked havoc on your life and your loved ones, but you just want to celebrate for no reason other than that your capacity for joy hasn’t been taken away completely yet?
To Feel Embraced works well for that mood. It’s a duo project between Basinski and his studio assistant Preston Wendel, but it might be a surprise for anyone who’s familiar with Basinski’s most popular compositions or even his goth song cycle Hymns of Oblivion. For one thing, he spends a lot of time here shredding on sax. For another, these are some great late summer jams. If going to a pool party weren’t a life-threatening thing to do in this cursed year, I’d recommend packing this with your brightly coloured towels and beach ball.
When I first realised this was a Basinski project, I expected it to sound like another record with a pink cover, Jim O’Rourke’s Eureka—a compendium of maybe-kitschy sounds borrowed from the sixties and seventies and reassembled with meticulous tongue-in-cheek love. To my surprise, my first listen made me feel more like I was listening to a beat tape, even if it’s one that includes a feature from the late Henry Grimes. You could slip some of the tracks into a playlist of lo-fi beats to chill and/or study to, and you might subtly scramble a few brains. Or even get someone to throw away their homework and go outside, which seems like an excellent compositional goal. Anyone who would get mad at a highly regarded composer for doing that needs to loosen up a little.
Every track on this album is enjoyable, but my favorite part lands in the middle, with the side-by-side tracks “To Feel” and “To Feel Embraced.” Following the candy-coloured whimsy of the record’s first twenty minutes, we get a sparkly drone that crests in a water-warped dance. It elevates the album from pure fun to something grand and reflective. Here, it’s the right amount of profound. It’s the long walk, bike, or ride to the top of a hill, followed by the clear view of the warm world below. It communicates the same wistful euphoria as something like J Dilla’s “One Eleven.” It’s the expansive moment of serenity that’s inseparable from its transitory quality—the knowledge that everything must change, and soon, but it’s okay.
As I began writing this, a horrendous amount of smoke from the West Coast’s fire season finally cleared out of the Bay Area. A week before, science-fiction levels of orange haze filled the sky, with no sun to be found, and over the next several days a thickness of unhealthy particulates drifted down to ground level, keeping people indoors even more than usual. When it lifted just a week before the autumnal equinox, even being outdoors felt like some kind of miracle. I associated these songs with that lifting—the chance to climb again to the top of a hill before sundown, to breathe in fresh air and to feel embraced by it.