The soundworld inhabited by Louis Johnstone is one of incidentals: tones and utterances detached and left to sprawl, going nowhere, becoming nothing. On TONGUE ORDER, the latest missive under the HENRY CARAVAN banner, the performer himself is another incidental within the whole piece, hitting keys, playing and stopping a Dictaphone, brushing against a potted plant. His presence is one of the discernible differences between CARAVAN and Johnstone’s more well-acquainted moniker, WANDA GROUP, whose albums and tapes almost seem to will themselves into being; led by field recordings and samples, it’s as if there’s nobody behind the boards to shape the void.
It’s axiomatic that Johnstone is present here, then, which gives rise to the idea that TONGUE ORDER is an ostensibly “personal” release, compared to the blank-faced absence of a WANDA GROUP tape/record. And, yeah, personality is all over the thing; each key-stroke carries a drunken purposefulness, Johnstone’s sporadically-appearing voice heavily accented and steeped in blissful tedium. The vibe is more solipsistic than anything, recorded alone, every noise a consequence of its creator’s actions. Still, disconnect lies at the album’s sluggish core, bearing the kind of epistemological distance between listener and artist that binds most, if not all, of Johnstone’s works together. On TONGUE ORDER, the words are one of the elements behind the disparity. “Lessons only learned from,” he sings initially, and so on: “strings held in the balance.” If the accent was difficult to perceive or apprehend, the fragmentary content therein can only heighten the dissonance.
Any meaning is obscured and undiscovered, held at arm’s length. But meaning isn’t exactly what Johnstone has strived for, ever. Sure, there’s plenty of conceptual fluff to be extracted from TONGUE ORDER: pyschogeographic ramblings of a man displaced and solitary, interplay between “unnatural” tape spools and “natural” piano, unusual language and phrasing, etc., and I have no doubt that it’s all completely unintentional, or at the very least inconsequential. Anything written before or hereafter about HENRY CARAVAN dissipates upon pressing play. It’s at once empty, mundane, entirely incidental, yet full of fascinating crags and blemishes. There’s a certain verisimilitude in its performance, an anti-engineered authenticity sans overdubs and editing. Impermanence takes a hold, the cosmological ORDER invoked by the title seems a little less pertinent. It ends as it began, in shamanically aimless fashion. It’s yours and mine as it much as it is Johnstone’s.
Between this tape and a further two WANDA GROUP releases (not to mention the rest of the Reckno batch from whence the thing came), there’s a chance that at least one of them will be lost to the unrelenting outpour that typifies Johnstone’s approach to recording and releasing his music. There’s just as much chance that TONGUE ORDER does not, and not just because it exists as a physical product. HENRY CARAVAN is endlessly ephemeral, and here to stay.