Driving cross country this summer, I saw a lot of rest stops. They vary in little ways, but one thing you’ll always see in the bathrooms is a perfume dispenser. I’ve never seen anyone use one, but they sit there, usually a little rusted with age. For a small price, you get a spray of bad knock-offs of famous perfumes — “exquisite replicas” they’re called. In such a dismal location as a truck-stop bathroom, it’s a beautiful juxtaposition to see something so out of place. Gastr Del Sol’s opening statement on the brilliant Upgrade & Afterlife, “Our Exquisite Replica of ‘Eternity,’” shares a great deal with its namesake that resides in those ugly bathroom vending machines. David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke, with help from Kevin Drumm, give listeners a fractured and atrophied approximation of something elegant.
This was not new ground for the duo. Their previous album Crookt, Crackt, or Fly was filled with sprawling deconstructions, but the fact that the album was mostly acoustic set up “Eternity” as a shocking opener. From the start, the song is overflowing with haunting organ drones that are simultaneously angelic and queasy. The balancing act builds tension until it releases in a brittle solo of feedback. Grubbs and O’Rourke never surpassed “Eternity” in its use of both noise and restraint. The middle section is explosively dissonant, yet controlled and focused. In the beginning we hear beauty with an undertone of menace, until they make it very clear that the menace and decay have won.
The last section of this opener ends with more fanfare than most album finales, including Upgrade & Afterlife. It is one of the first cases of sampling from a band that made very unique use of the technique (one of the most memorable moments on the album is a duet between a trumpet and a hissing tea kettle on “The Sea Incertain”). “Eternity’s” finale explodes into trumpets and strings. The moaning orchestration is taken from Hans Salter’s score for the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, a surprisingly deep B-movie that ends with the titular shrinking man failing to save himself, but accepting and finding comfort in the fact that everything he is will eventually fade into nothing.
That sampling of strings might finally make sense in the year of The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (TMT Review), an album also about atrophy and deconstruction and one that owes a lot to O’Rourke and Grubbs. “Eternity’s” closing section is suddenly gorgeous and triumphant, but it is backed with hideous insect-like electronic chirping, reminding listeners that it is only a replica of something beautiful. Soon, all the other sounds die, and we’re left with a two second loop of a piano, a phrase with no end and no beginning, no memory and no future, slowly decaying into silence. The shrinking man will eventually be reduced to an atom, but he still finds value in his existence. “There can be grandeur in a small thing,” Garrison Keillor once said; I would add that there can be beauty in broken things, as well as originality in replicas. And you know what? I’ve smelled the Exquisite Replica of “Eternity,” the perfume that is; it’s just fine.