By Ian Cory
We tend to think of music as being a narrative art. This is a pretty reasonable position, because we like narratives and tend to see them everywhere, and a piece of music normally* has a pretty concrete beginning, middle and end. Pop music also pushes us into this interpretation by providing a lyric narrative that follows the linear progression of the music. Matthew Cooper, better known to most of the world as Eluvium, does not follow this pattern. His music only works as a linear narrative if the same could be said of the tides. Even the larger arc of his career appears to be cyclical in nature. His early works were pure ambient, made up of shifting soundscapes and drones; then he suddenly added vocals on 2010’s Similes only for them to (mostly) vanish on his newest record, Nightmare Ending.
Describing ambient in the terms of pop music is a pretty thankless task. Not only does it function differently from a formal perspective (i.e. for most ambient music, form isn’t really a concern) but also the requirements from a listener on a moment-to-moment basis are drastically different. Nightmare Ending doesn’t have many “events” in the way that a standard pop album would, although it does have noticeable shifts in harmony and melody. These changes occur slowly and often loop back around in unsurprising and natural ways, which allows the listener to move beyond the excitement of “what happens next” and focus on how the music is happening. Many of the sounds being made on this album are originally from a piano but have come a long way to their final form on the album. Often, the forefront of the piece will be a recognizable piano progression, while mountains of echoes of the same part build in the background, until they eventually overtake the entire mix. Each of the sounds that ebb and flow through the tracks leave a small sonic residue. Cooper is a master at creating a sense of distance and space in his music, and listening to this album is much more like walking through something than having something happen to you.
If I may be allowed to get a bit gushy, the spaces that Eluvium builds are absolutely gorgeous. I’ve used water comparisons a few times in this review, and there is certainly an aquatic element to these environments, usually provided by swirling reverb trails from the strings. But more than anything Nightmare Ending captures the feeling of wandering aimlessly through a park on a spring day. Sunlight beams through leaves and there is a pervasive calm that hangs suspended in the air. Cooper does move into less pastoral territory on “By The Rails” and “Strange Arrivals”, but it’s clear that he finds harsher sounds far less interesting than the pleasant ones, as he only spends a combined six minutes exploring them. The sounds that he does show the most care and attention to are, as one could infer, the most achingly beautiful. Somewhat atypical of a double disc album, these moments happen late on the second disc. “Covered In Writing” grows and blooms over the course of nine minutes into what resembles an inverse of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, exploding with life and warmth. It’s easy to picture this track, along with the horn led coda to “Happiness”, scoring the work of Terrance Malick.
Of course these impressions come from a very subjective place for me. I heard this album for the first time during a rare burst of spring in Chicago, so of course I was going to associate it with warm weather. It’s just as conceivable that if this album had been released in December that I would compare it to a fresh layer of snow softening the footsteps through a quiet small town. The powerful thing about Nightmare Ending is that allows us to fill its open spaces with whatever feelings and moods we want. It’s a blank canvas that helps us find the beauty in our surroundings, be they real or imagined. We tend to place a great deal of value in music that wallows in sorrow and loss (see: my review of TheTerror), but Eluvium is a project that proves that contentedness can be just as compelling.
*There’s a lot of weird art music out there that eschews conventional order, especially chance music, but let’s not get into that.