I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach this one for a while, because the questions Surface Noise manages to throw up over 12 minutes of vinyl crackle and string samples are a heck of a lot wider than the ground it covers. The bottom line is that you’ll enjoy this. It’s hard not to. It’s a gentle, withered, and mournful self-contained suite that you’ll find lovely at points and pretty at others, and the blanker spaces aren’t around too long until the points at which it sounds nice crop up again. It’s a nice-sounding record, and it’s occasionally pretty beautiful. It’s nice. Nice music. But you’re on Tiny Mix Tapes, so niceness likely ain’t the only thing on your shopping list.
The last L. Pierre record was the rightfully loved The Island Come True, and it remains the most satisfying piece of work the project has produced to date by a pretty large margin. By marrying conceptual matter and a delicately sprawling range of samples with a new level of emotional heft, the whole thing sang like the wind and murmured like a breeze. Surface Noise is a big step back from that, to the point where this record is either purely an experiment or a complete abdication of the heights The Island Come True hinted at, because it puts it all on black and just straight-up apes The Caretaker without any kind of depth, imagination, or feeling at all.
There is absolutely no point in ever running a flag up and declaring that what has been shall be all that shall be, or that what has been done can’t be surpassed, since The Caretaker is just a guy, and An Empty Bliss Beyond This World is just a record. But this feels like such a self-conscious ripple of the massive boulder that record threw into the collective consciousness that it’s almost irrelevant, no matter how enjoyable this is. Like, is there a library music record of 80s synth matter that can live in the same world of substance, brilliance, and integrity as something like R Plus Seven? There’s sound that is merely assembled and presented as pleasurable or signifying, or there’s sound organized with purpose. This EP just feels like the formalization of a complex expression of ideas that once felt downright revolutionary into a mere set of sounds to be used and repeated, a trope to be drawn upon. The obvious comparison would be something like Beat Happening having to deal with stuff like Tullycraft, but L. Pierre, a.k.a. Aidan Moffat, is a much smarter, much more thorough, and much more inventive guy than that comparison would suggest or this record demonstrates, which just makes how empty this record feels even more confusing.
Everything about Surface Noise reinforces this anonymity. Dividing it self-consciously into movements — that is, selling Surface Noise as a concerto for vinyl crackle and orchestra sample, over six numbered sections — underlines this intersection by which something radical is formalized into a mere mode, a set of sounds that can be exploited into any purpose, and in this case, no purpose at all. The album artwork, which dresses it up like a relic from the 50s, jars with the music, and ultimately, the title sums it up best: nothing here gets below the surface. When matter is as eerily divorced from, well, any kind of subject matter or concept like it is here, stuff tends to just feel like a new form of elevator music. Although there are gorgeous points, it feels like it’s laboring the point to enumerate them, because the pleasures feel so inconsequential, like rhapsodizing on the pleasure of a green light in traffic or nodding along to the muzak-ified Bacharach they have in the public toilets in the Perth Cultural Centre. Like, take “Movement III”: swooning on a mournful string progression redolent of the melody to “You Are My Sunshine,” the whole moment is ripe for contextualization, reappropriation, or really any kind of investment of meaning. Instead, the sound is just presented; it pleases, then it disappears. It’s an empty shell. The grand sweep of “Movement VI” feels like it could redeem anything, but it lives nowhere, touches nothing, and doesn’t stay with you because of it.
I’m happy to write this one off and wait for what Moffat comes up with next, because it’ll probably be pretty great, but if the price of leading a revolution is having to deal with the people who pick up muskets and follow you, then this is someone shooting at paintings indiscriminately in the Winter Palace. The Caretaker was that he made a record so unique and uniquely whole out of the minimal components involved that anything that merely followed in the wake of the thing (instead of exploring the fringes of what that album did with a similar level of substance) would inevitably be found wanting in comparison. The lack of substance involved in Surface Noise — as if prettiness was the only import it has to give — means that it can’t hope to be anything more than the sum of its seconds. While An Empty Bliss charted the loss and fragmentation of memory, Surface Noise just feels like the natural decay of newness, and as such, there’s not much more to do than just shrug at it.