How much you enjoy Nico Muhly’s new album Mothertongue will depend, ironically enough, on which is your original musical language: rock or classical.
If The Beatles or Prince count among your first loves, chances are you’ll hear this album as warmed over Bjōrk. If you were weaned on Beethoven and graduated to Terry Riley, you may well think this album is genius, especially if you take the time to read Muhly’s notes.
He’s awfully good at writing about his music in the best sort of restaurantese, the kind which transforms a simple list of ingredients into a seduction, leaving you craving whatever it is he’s serving up. Instead of “Beef Cheek Ravioli with Crushed Squab Liver and Black Truffles” you get “a violent, ecstatic recitation of addresses and zip codes antagonized by a “˜monster’ made out of over-amplified cereal and synthesizers”.
Mothertongue is organized into three suites, which differ in their surface material but are all identical in basic form. Each starts fairly simply and builds to a fulminant climax. Tonality is either completely static or moves at a glacial pace. There are no truly bad sounds. Everything is stitched together lovingly.
The first suite (“˜Mothertongue’) relies a bit too much on cut and paste composition as minute and indistinguishable syllables are looped endlessly. The synthesizer is pure 1983’s kitsch, and the result is an unavoidable (and unfavorable) comparison to Laurie Anderson.
The second (“˜Wonders’) uses a meandering harpsichord and trombone overdubs to rework a Weelkes madrigal, which is sung by the trombonist. With every moment in the album, it’s safe to assume Muhly’s choices are deliberate. So, apparently allowing the trombonist to be overmatched by Weelkes’ melody in the singing of it has some sort of intent. Unfortunately, his bland tone and inaccurate pitch do more to distract than enchant.
The last and strongest of the suites is “˜The Only Tune‘, which is sung by Sam Amidon. As with the rest of the album, overdubs abound, but here Muhly finally lets his material breathe. Amidon’s fractured vocal finally seems like a genuine device rather than a posture, and his banjo picking is a welcome sonority.
By quirk of iTunes, Mothertongue is nestled just in front of Yesterday Was Dramatic Today Is OK by míºm on my computer. If you are interested in hearing the music that Muhly is imitating, this is a great place to start. It’s hardly a coincidence that Mothertongue is released by a label in Iceland (Bedroom Community). The genetic code of this album is hopelessly intertwined with that of Icelandic artists like míºm and Sigur Rí³s. Chances are, if you already love this music, Muhly’s stab at it will seem like a minor effort: enjoyable but forgettable.
But if all this is new to you, and you like to read a couple hundred words about whatever you hear, chances are Mothertongue just might strike you as brilliant. It’s all a matter of interpretation.