Loss, to me, is losing someone very close to you. And I lost both my grandparents by the time I was 25.
About a month ago, I attended a funeral for a beloved uncle. It was sudden. When I arrived home the night before, I found my mother immersed in piles of photographs, sorting through to find the most representative portraits, the most accurate portrayals of his family and friends, the most evocative captures of his laughter and the greatness of his soul. There was limited space. The initial estimates proved too small and required a late-night run to acquire more foamboard and frames to display the full complement, as if his whole life might reappear were there only enough white space. This process provided a crucial and powerful catharsis for my mother, who not only attached great sentiment to images, but also had just lost her brother and best friend. I’ve always been skeptical of the power of pictures-as-memories for my own use, and as such, I only provided moral support and words of recognition of my uncle’s old friends or moments in our shared past. But at the funeral, some of these pictures — their arrangement, their transfixing of a spirit so recently departed — drew tears from my eyes. Photographs of moments in which I played no part and of which I had no memory still evoked the person whom I knew so well.
Then there were others who gazed at the photos, picking out people they knew and wondering about those they didn’t, perhaps constructing stories about them or associating them with once-heard names or places. Some did not even know my uncle very well at all, but came to support our family. The effect of listening to the first half of Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet’s Photographs is similar: it’s an invitation to experience someone else’s lives, to sit and listen in on a conversation over tea with someone else’s family members, to hear their stories and their preferences, to share a meal with them. We take car trips with them, walk with them, attend church with them. In the beautiful packaging, we even see glimpses of the two performers as children. Those who have followed Lambkin and Lescalleet through their trilogy will note the conceptual parallels to The Breadwinner, which saw the duo using all areas of Lambkin’s home as studio space, recording all the accidents of domesticity in the meanwhile. Both of them open spaces that were once private and dub the events therein to tape. And yet the medium of tape always disconnects us as it invites us in.
The tears in my eyes from the photographs at the funeral were double: not only did the pictures so accurately capture moments of my uncle’s soul, but they communicated their absence, arrayed them into ink. On Photographs, the tapes of conversations, of choirs, of seagulls on the beach constantly shift between familiarity and abstraction. Stories slip on the lilt of an accent into pure sound, just as a well-composed photograph becomes a kind of spectacle that transcends its subject matter. Most of the audio is an abstract blur, which flees any attempts at narrating it. Not only this, but any moment that the tape records is impossible for us to experience, and however warmly Lambkin and Lescalleet invite us into the spaces in which their childhoods, lives, and families have unfolded, we may only approach as far as to listen at the keyhole. This final piece of their collaborative trilogy opens most widely the door of their personal lives, which is crucial to understanding the origins of the tape recordings on The Breadwinner. And yet, this process that seems to demystify also serves to abstract, taking the listener even deeper into the audio spectacle, immersing us in the knowledge that the mystery is irrecoverable, that the photograph-on-tape is all that remains.
Loss itself is being somewhere you don’t know where you are, to me. And I continually feel like that, constantly, all the time, every day. I know where I am in the world, but at the same time I still do feel lost, everything’s new, everything’s different, everything changes.
Recently, I lost a full-time job and with it a settled routine, security, and a sense of my place in the world. It never really was a satisfying position, but it was something to cling to, however pointlessly. My plans, at least for a time, vanished. Since then, every day is different, and the (perhaps accidental) malevolence of the system I live within feels readily apparent as I pass the district courts for the social services building, where every day hundreds of people gather, hoping that their paperwork goes through this time. This is the sensation that the second half of Photographs evokes: dislocation, confusion, groundlessness, beset by strange forces. If Photographs’ disc three (that is, of the four-disc trilogy) corresponds to The Breadwinner and reveals the impossibility of its invitation, disc four corresponds to Air Supply, deepening its malevolence, unveiling it at the most local and at the most systematic layers (followers of the trilogy will even notice that track lengths match exactly). But it also offers respite: the very same abstracted familiarity, the comic, the friendly, arrives to rescue us.
It’s difficult to define the character of the sounds on Photographs, because so many of them lack a sense of ground. Much of disc four, in particular, features blown-out, vast sounds that lead the listener down a featureless sonic tunnel. Objects and voices almost rip the listener’s consciousness into recognition of them. It’s the feeling of spending an entire day alone, having never spoken a word to anyone since waking; then, as you are waiting for the bus, someone asks you for the time, and you fumble with your timepiece and tongue, almost always jarringly loud, having almost forgotten who you are. Photographs simulates this lostness in passages, and in its various moods pushes the listener through paranoia, dread, annoyance, and awe.
But there was something that was going to save us. Disc four’s first track “If All Goes Well” begins with (I presume) Lescalleet’s partner describing the expansion of the town with a kind of nervous laughter, but eventually offering Lambkin and Lescalleet a bowl of soup that contains “a little of everything.” From there, the sound of the album expands and the aforementioned lostness manifests, touring us through “The System,” the church, the streets. But the album wraps with a clicking of spoons against bowls. “That was good dear,” offers Lescalleet, and Lambkin agrees. We have just consumed a murky, nebulous, satisfying soup (though Lescalleet did not like the puddings, he says, presumably consumed when visiting Graham’s home abroad). Perhaps this is a remedy for any lostness: proper reality requires many ingredients, and there are those who would serve it to us in a comfortable setting. And though we weren’t there to eat the actual soup, the joke wouldn’t work without the abstraction from the initial happening. It’s a fitting end to this trilogy, with its half-gestures towards invitation and confrontation. It comes to rest in both and captures that moment, offering us a friendly meal, however absent its bodily nourishment, and a fearful journey, thankfully abstract, posing no danger.