The project of gaining self-perspicuity has tormented humans since that first moment when survival could be put aside and more contemplative problems could pound upon the gates of the mind. One brave soul claimed that, despite the fact that we carefully attend to the 12 bell strokes of our being, we soon after realize that we have miscounted them. Once again, we have misunderstood ourselves, and this misunderstanding is a perpetual one. Some will find this impenetrability unbearable, slamming themselves up against the prison of the self, but others will begin to see the joy that can come from always not knowing: the self can become the stage for unending experimentation and play.
Most Valuable Player’s album art is a 1998 most valuable player award from the N.E.P.S.A.C. (New England Preparatory School Athletic Council) Class C Tournament. It should be no mystery at this point that Nat Baldwin turned away from the chance to play college basketball and towards music, namely studying at Wesleyan alongside sound-explorer Anthony Braxton. Braxton’s influence is especially felt on Baldwin’s 2002 release, Solo Contrabass, in which he pulverizes the instrument for the sake of both redefining what sounds it can make and opening up new possibilities. Since the Lights Out EP, Baldwin has embraced a more pop-friendly aesthetic, but his experimental tendencies have shined through on the last several albums. On Most Valuable Player — recorded by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, who also worked with Baldwin on the recording of Dirty Projector’s hermeneutic masterpiece, Rise Above — Baldwin creates some of the most enlightened music of his career.
As the album art ought to imply, one of the primary goals of this project is to look back. Baldwin’s aim is not just to trace the trajectory of the self, but to articulate the impossibility of clear self-articulation. One could claim that this goal has been patiently lurking underneath, if not at the forefront of, his entire discography. Evidence for this claim can be found in recurring themes and terms. For example: 2006’s Lights Out EP becomes “Enter The Light Out” on 2006’s Enter The Winter, and a new version of “Enter The Light Out” finds itself on Most Valuable Player. Behind the 2006 version, there is a swelling, distorting hum of horns and strings that vanishes on the 2008 version. The song itself deals with the uncertainty surrounding the question of what the self is at any particular moment, and we would be correct to interpret the “void” as that which simultaneously displaces the self and provides us a tool for its (illusory) location. The lack of the distorting-swell in the newer version shows Baldwin playing with the possibility of self-knowledge, as if the lack of this hum would allow us a clearer glimpse into our own mysteriousness.
“Black Square” should immediately make us think of Malevich’s painting, "Black Square", which should lead us directly to questions of transparency. Here, ghosts of older versions of the self prevent the much-desired glimpse, and new doors open up to lead the looker in an infinite number of directions. It is not just that the self cannot be clearly seen, but that the self plays games with itself by leading itself into labyrinths of its own design: “the results left at the dead end.” The recurring terminology provides some sort of foundation that connects one moment to another, but if the project of self-perspicuity is a failed project from the outset, the foundation is one that cannot be trusted. In “Felled Trees,” Baldwin sings, “De-attached from your dome branches,” thus referencing both “Dome Branches” and “De-Attached.” In “Dome Branches,” we find the lyrics “and mask wounds”; the term “mask” has obvious implications for our story, though we should also note that Solo Contrabass contains songs titled “Mask” and “Wounds.” The most revealing moment comes in “One Two Three,” in which Baldwin wrestles with the task of choosing a version of the self for the world to see: the daunting task of making the self public. This task, however, proves too difficult, resulting in another inward turn: “All these layers lost lead back to one thing.” The self, despite its incomprehensibility, its foundationlessness, is the “foundation” we always go back to. This is the mask we wear; the persona we accept.
The instrumentation on Most Valuable Player is crisp and bold — especially the thick horns and the dangerous guitar combination of Looker and Longstreth — yet also minimal. Baldwin’s double bass provides a rich texture, sophistication, and freshness — a strangeness — that immediately distinguishes the aesthetic from the drab, regurgitated indie-pop of the day. But what stands out is Baldwin’s fleeting, drifting, spectral vocal technique. His voice dances and glides over the tracks, moving in unpredictable directions, often indecipherable. We should consider the Catholic pastoral model and the ritual of confession, namely the notion that, by clearly articulating the innermost secrets of the self through the act of confessing, the self can be revealed and cleansed. This practice assumes that self-perspicuity is possible and that the voice is the tool that can provide a passageway from the self to the public realm, thus allowing the inner-puzzle to finally be solved. Baldwin’s vocal-style calls this possibility into question — his voice floats above the self, attempting to clearly articulate its many self-observations, but it remains partly removed. There is no direct connection between the voice and the self, and as it undergoes transformations from one moment to the next, the validity of the voice’s claims are as problematic as the link between the two.
In the final minute of the album’s closing track, “Look She Said” — named after a piece by Christian Wolff — Baldwin goes free on his double bass. If throughout the course of the album Baldwin has gained some sort of self-perspicuity, it is immediately shattered in these final moments. Once again, we return to the chaotic scraping and screeching that perhaps marks the transition from one version of the self to the next: the “one thing” we always return to might not be the self, but this transitional moment (unless the self is the transitional moment). However, the perpetual inability to successfully reach this goal does not take away the playful joy of the journey. As long as there are always multiple versions of the self that can never be fully disclosed, there exist multiple avenues of exploration, multiple mazes containing an endless store of ephemeral treasure of the utmost value.
1. Lake Erie
2. Dome Branches
3. Black Square
4. Only To Find
5. The Felled Trees
7. One Two Three
8. Enter The Light Out
9. Mask I Wear
10. Look She Said