When Capitol released The Beach Boys’ The Smile Sessions box set last year, it was a moment defined for me by a mix of joy and disappointment. Having grown up with their music and then become fascinated by their deeper catalog as a young man in college, Smile had been a constitutive absence: a missing piece that guaranteed the mystery and mythology around the band would always remain perplexing and unsolvable. However, my mixed feelings weren’t due to Smile being a mystery left unengaged. I, like many Beach Boys devotees, had pored over press accounts of the auspicious moment of Smile’s recording, the subsequent albums that included versions of songs that had been intended for that once-abandoned project, and, perhaps the most enigmatic piece, the various tracks from those sessions that had leaked or been released in various forms in the years following its abandonment. This last element in particular allowed not only contemplation of what might have been, but also, given the nature of the incomplete fragments, was an excuse to play and replay small musical phrases in perpetuity.
This all may seem to be a good distance away from anything to do with a review for a contemporary ambient musician’s latest tome, so I’ll get to the point: What I’ve realized to be the most enchanting element of listening to those track fragments was that compulsion I felt to play them over and over, plunging myself into discrete passages in ways that the insistent flow of a pop song rarely allows. This was, in essence, an unplanned curriculum in close listening but also path to appreciation of minimalism. It is just this sort of dissected pop minimalism that comes to my mind when listening to Body Moving Slowly, the sophomore full-length release by Alex Twomey under his Mirror to Mirror moniker.
While a lot of ambient music has a minimalist aesthetic, not all of it can rightly be said to offer the kind of microscopic inspection of pop soundscapes that Mirror to Mirror does. Take, for instance, Twomey’s celebrated collaboration, 1958-2009, done with conspirator Matthew Sullivan in homage/contemplation of Michael Jackson just following his premature demise. The elegantly extended sides that composed that project’s output exist as spaces of contemplation, but they are far too restrained and droning to really evoke pop music, as much as their name and cover art make references to its King.
In contrast, Mirror to Mirror offers an extracted and magnified version of popular song by situating listeners within extended sequences of repeating patterns that could easily be the foundation of lovely baroque pop song sections. The opening title track establishes this with an alternation of repeating organ notes slowly met by a low percussive throb and a sawing bassline. It sounds like a brief transition taken from one of Brian Wilson’s teenage symphonies that’s being dissected and analyzed in much the same way that Wilson himself (and subsequent fans) did with those small moments captured during the 1966-67 recording sessions. That’s not to say that these sections remain static figures; “Body Moving Slowly” evolves, with timbres changing and the emphases upon various elements shifting as well. It’s like hearing an artist work through various combinations of a pattern to better understand its potential effect. The result is ambient to a degree, but in a way more vibrant and engaging than what is typically labeled as such.
This vibrancy is particularly evident in the first half of the album, with “Burning Life” and what comes after acting as a shift into darker, more discordant territory (hinted at earlier in the most droning composition, “Dream Too Hard”). This gives the album a trajectory, where the sounds and titles of the earlier tracks feel playful, exploratory, and wistful before shifting into a more despondent tone. That’s not to say that it charts a course from wonder to worry, but rather that the feeling of limitless possibility fostered in that first half gives way to something more resigned and thoughtful. Perhaps this is the shift of an artist realizing and signaling that his statement has largely been made, that if a listener hasn’t yet been wooed, there is little likelihood that they will be. Of course, if one has been charmed by the intimate pieces of pop dissection populating the first half, the latter tracks allow for some exploration of the darker emotions evoked when focusing on fragments of a minor key. Whether this collection hints at a move toward more complex song structure or arrangements remains to be seen, but taken on its own, Body Moving Slowly is evidence that Twomey’s Mirror to Mirror project is unquestionably in a process of changing in sound and scope.