A city is a model of human activity. Yet for every city, for every glass-concrete-steel grid of an individual’s possibility, there are those marginal spaces where the predominance of a certain architecture, topography, and commerce thins out or even breaks down, and an unnerving indeterminacy emerges. These are “non-places” (Marc Augé, 1992), or — to use a term coined by Alan Berger — “drosscapes,” places that either exceed or have been neglected by the reach of politics, economics, and bureaucracy, and that have an ambiguous place in “the system” and therefore no particular prescription to make on how a person should act or be. Examples of such transitional and abandoned hinterlands are easy to imagine (e.g., intercity fringes, rural garbage dumps, derelict industrial areas), yet even though their peculiar minimality and deprivation has assumed a greater prominence in academia, film, literature, and social commentary, music hasn’t done all that much to limn the states and emotions that permeate such skeletal terrain. Sure, there has been Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, and, more recently, Karl Hyde’s Edgeland, yet as a whole, music isn’t really in the habit of delving into the intersection between diluted landscapes and diluted subjectivities, often preferring to hone itself on one instead of the other, as if they weren’t two sides of the same coin.
This is where Nicholas Crozier Malkin enters with Lowlife, his debut as Afterhours for Not Not Fun. While not specifically concerned with the most obvious stereotypes of “non-space,” the album’s focus is on how the cover of night effectively transmutes the formerly breathing city into a “drosscape” as underdetermined as any urban runoff. Severed from the various forms of traffic that constitute the day’s respiration and that function as obstinate cues for the individual to behave in this way or that, the urban center becomes an unfamiliar and uncanny radius where people ease into less pressured modes of being, where the inspirations for tracks like “Spit at the Mirror” are encountered in blank parking lots and dimly lit basements. Beginning with half a minute of stressed-out glitch that’s commanded by a sampled “Let it go” to dissipate, this opening cut then filters into an atmosphere of tranquil impersonality, as intermittent radar blips, a diffuse hissing, and uncertain piano chords measure their own escape from the demands of office blocks and shopping malls.
Like many pieces of music that would straddle the edges between deep house, trip-hop, and ambient, “Spit at the Mirror” and its successors are archetypally nocturnal in their palette, but what saves Lowlife from being a mere repetition of everything else is the contradiction it frequently maintains between a kind of disoriented suspense and an easy-going placidity. There’s a sense of being adrift in numbers like “Sixty Forty” that follows from the aimless cyclicality of its bass and the sparse trickles of piano that dot through its haze, yet at the same time, this sense and these instrumental flourishes are imbued with a penetratingly relaxing outline. Much the same holds for album centerpiece “Lovesick,” with its benign exhalations of synth and its energized cowbells, and even though these mismatched juxtapositions might seem implausible at first, they gradually yield coherence when viewed through the conceptual prism of the “non-space.” Yes, because while the relatively sparse detailing of these two songs could be heard as the musical equivalent of a loss of bearings, the removal of everyday coordinates is at the same time experienced as a liberation, an opportunity to cultivate a more equable and less besieged self.
And in the second half of Lowlife, the contours of the new domain this self inhabits are revealed in all their sedate fluidity. “Outcome” and “Defragment #2” are streams of compressed, revolving air that hint at an environment where the subject’s inner world can no longer be sufficiently articulated or expressed, simply because the one criterion of a “sufficient” speech act — the presence of some socio-economic operation that would transform an utterance into a standardized step in one of its processes — has vanished with the sun’s light and the city’s machinery. But even if the consequences or direction of the individual’s experience within the album’s demi-monde cannot be specified, we can still say something about the colors and shades of her Lowlife experiences, and once again state that for all their subdued disembodiment, they are still nonetheless peculiarly contented and composed, the diaphanous e-strings and the sampled patterings of rain immersing her in a detoxicated bubble.
Yet despite the unimpeachable pacifism of these non-spaces, they don’t always translate into consistently engaging or surprising music, and so in the end, Lowlife becomes the victim of its own success, intermittently producing divorced and decommissioned music that’s a fitting partner for the divorced and decommissioned tracts of nighttime that it quotes. There are exceptions to its detachment, such as the chill beat of “Night and Day” and its daydreamed peals of saxophone, yet even here, things may be a little too inactive for some, consisting as it does of an uninterrupted linear structure that skates politely through a lax vibe. And on second thought, if the album were a faithful reproduction of a twilight cityscape untouched by societal and industrial str(i)(u)ctures, it might be a little more unpredictable and inventive, and a little less controlled. But then again, maybe the notion of a liminal space that transcends the influence of politics, authority, and convention is a fantasy, which would make the now self-negating peace of Lowlife the perfect soundtrack.