Being is a curious name for a synth-pop album. Not Meaning, not Truth, not Appearance, not Givenness, but Being. Why renounce the epoché, and why here? With her SP-555 and effects rack, does Mozart’s Sister (Caila Thompson-Hannant) really hope to restore the dogmatic barbarism of the real world of objects-in-themselves? Plenty of critics might prefer to believe that Mozart’s Sister is, technically speaking, an inexperienced tinkerer playing with toys and noisemakers, unaware of the wider implications of her composition’s title. Electronic music is kind of still a gentleman’s game. Why am I so willing to follow Mozart’s Sister down her own rabbit hole? Why do I allow her to get me thinking about Being again?
I’m vulnerable to this sort of thing. Grimes’ Visions was one of my favorite albums of 2012, and Ramona Lisa’s Arcadia is my favorite of this year so far. Still, I think my fascination has less to do with odd, attractive women multitasking between MIDI controllers, hardware synths, samplers, and the like than with singer-songwriters who show exemplary creativity, skill, and honesty in personal storytelling. YouTube commenters accuse Mozart’s Sister of ripping off Grimes, but here is an artist with the courage to cast aside Visions (changing angles, perspectives, and tastes) and stand in affirmation of Being and all its materiality, its finitude. Thompson-Hannant’s voice sits commandingly in the mix, with a strangeness and fullness of body that reminds me more of vocal trance (maybe “Rhythm of the Night”) or tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus than of Grimes’ diaphanous whine. I can always fall back on the YouTube consensus if pressed to justify my placement of Grimes in the “others” field above, but why the hivemind in the first place? Alternative culture isn’t ready to accept women as electronic musicians between which there can be profound differentiation; Grimes is a genre. Listening to Being, I admit that it initially takes me several minutes to shed my points of reference and admire Being ontologically (for-itself), in accordance with its titular demand. I only feel rewarded after I do.
As much as I’d like to continue to play Being’s game of dealing with things as inert objects-in-themselves, people will undoubtedly see Being differently. Here’s my version of the story: an unsure and immemorable beginning stretch is followed by an undeniably spectacular B-side. Not to say that I don’t like “Good Thing Bad Thing,” “Enjoy” (a long-lost sibling of “Relax”), and “Lone Wolf,” all of them honestly weird and weirdly honest tracks. I just mean that Being really comes together as an Album, as a thing in and of itself, after “Bow a Kiss.” The beats get a little more homogeneous, and the lyrics (especially on “Salty Tears” and “My House is Wild”) start to assume the second-person more often, despite retaining their deeply personal tone. Just like Visions, Being will seem frontloaded to people who don’t like to sit down and listen to 40 minutes of music, but the rest of us will find the music becoming more interesting and crucial the longer we listen.
So what, if anything, does Being say about Being? To me, just as much as any other, earlier popular electronic music (I think of acts as disparate as Moby, New Order, and Fatboy Slim) manages to say about it through the style, smoke, and ambience. The title Being carries with it all the half-serious heavy-handedness of old-fashioned electronica, but the treasure at its center is more ambiguous and (inter)personal. Thompson-Hannant’s songs are funny, referential, surprising, and revealing. She busily twists knobs and uses her unusual style and bodily animation for stage presence like some others, but unlike them, she creates music that opens up and wants to connect. Ontology can be a decentralizing metaphysics in its separation of meaning from determining eyes and minds, but I still think Being, if examined too closely, is a misnomer. Even though “the best part of going out is coming home alone” (a lyric from “Lone Wolf”), Thompson-Hannant is interested in sharing the earth with us — the title of closer “Chained Together” speaks volumes. Mozart’s Sister’s debut is a living monument to dead stasis.