Styles: synth pop, ambient, subjective idealism, solipsism
Others: Future Islands, Var, Grumbling Fur, not Venetian Snares
Aaron Funk is Venetian Snares, and Venetian Snares is one half of Poemss, but without a nudge and a wink, you would never mistake these identities for the same person while listening to Poemss. Sure, the debut album from his partnership with Toronto producer-cum-vocalist Joanne Pollock trades in an abstracted “surrealism” that Funk attributed to his solo work in a 2003 interview, and sure, he even croons on a few excursions here and there. But other than these two parallels, there’s little to confuse his new vehicle with his old. From one perspective, this is a good thing, since only a sadist would want a human being to reproduce the same commodity over and over again to the point of death, but from another, it’s not so good, since the 10 synthetic hallucinations he’s made with his new collaborator lack the invention, intensity, and intelligence of his earlier dives into sound-based fuckery.
That said, there’s another weakness infecting these exercises in retro-futurist dream malaise, and this one’s peculiar to its philosophy and thematic scope. Each gauzy train of smoke on Poemss is a carrier for an easy, pseudo-radical breed of metaphysical idealism or, at best, indirect realism, meaning that both Funk and Pollock are under the unfortunate impression that the only thing we securely perceive in the world is our own sense-data, rather than the objects that cause said data by impinging on our sensory faculties. This translates into neon mirages like “Heads on Heads,” which over mid-paced 4/4, twinkling electronics, and phase-shifted angularities fazes us with such lyrics as, “Eyelids now are clouding/ From all the sun I’ve seen/ Lay down in forest of dreams/ Skies now glass it seems.” From these words of skepticism, we’re supposed to begin doubting the consistency of our own perceptual equipment and the external monotony that reiterates itself upon it, and if this weren’t enough, both Funk and Pollock conjure a series of fantastical apparitions out of their spacey trot, with “Galloping birds of sunflower horses” implying that the mundane objects we usually encounter are just as mythical.
In other words, Poemss would have you believe that we don’t see the world “the way it really is,” that this failure can be rectified only by a mediation between a human body and the external that somehow isn’t a mediation, and that the inaccessibility of such a mediator is something radically debilitating and disturbing. Of course, it could be argued that espousal of a questionable philosophy of perception is no reason to downgrade a mere album, yet if we’re willing to criticize a song for its apparent immorality, then why can’t we do the same if it propagates a potentially misleading school of thought?
Poemss (Joanne Pollock + Aaron Funk/Venetian Snares)
Poemss may not sound like it’s especially consumed with the outlook it’s being humorlessly charged with here, at least not on first listen. Its lapses into unreality all have a distinctly futuristic color to them, an antiseptic, steel-tubed, and occasionally 8-bit stylization that evokes geodesic domes more than Bishop Berkely, yet this otherworldly motif is wielded not to underline the distance that will separate us from the unborn versions of ourselves, but rather the distance that separates us from our own present. And more evidence of the LP’s advocacy of “It’s-all-in-your-mind” idealism comes with “Losing Meaning,” where an austere, dislocated grandeur introduces Funk’s musings on how our consciousness and conception of existence are persistently morphing to the point where we’re “Left in impulse.” Within hallways of celestial synths and a plodding electro-bass, his heavy breaths announce, “Shaved-down surface/ Exaggeration/ Shifting purpose/ Chipping details” — though it’s anyone’s guess as to how he can expect either himself or anyone else to know what he’s going on about when phenomenology, language, and knowledge are so intractably volatile
But a dodgy weltanschauung isn’t the only mark against Poemss, because while the album admittedly does a faithful job of representing the solipsistic isolation that would inevitably follow if we all had incommensurable experiences of the universe, this success occasionally deprives its diffuse, alienated experiments of drive and consequence, of any kind of pull or focus that might coax the listener into its weightless atmosphere. In “Miles Away,” Pollock intones, “You can’t love a girl/ From a million miles away,” and aside from repeating the duo’s “What you perceive isn’t real” credo, the track sifts through a procession of glacial undulations, rises and dips of violin’d electronics that don’t quite possess the luscious, enveloping verve that would compensate for their lethargy. The same complaint holds for “Gentle Mirror,” which struggles to escape the insubstantiality of its outdated blips and bleeps, despite the inclusion of a harmonized chorus that, while affirming “I could be your light,” often sounds more like “I could be your lie.”
There are also four instrumental numbers on Poemss, but apart from the intoxicating “Ancient Pony,” they once again suffer from a partial absence of definition and distinction. Moreover, in depicting the cheap artificiality of human perception, they recurrently make use of a cheap artificiality in their keyboarded instrumentation, something that militates against their possession of any enduring resonance or clout. The album is also hampered by another aesthetic hitch, which is Funk’s vocals. In contrast to Pollock, whose light, ethereal tones are a perfect match for the musical and conceptual ambience they corroborate, Funk has a somewhat leaden, stilted delivery, one that seems a little too earthy and low-pitched to complement themes of illusion and immateriality. As a consequence, the LP isn’t internally coherent, isn’t particularly successful on its own terms, which is probably more of a sin than any imputed association with this or that philosophy could ever be.
But the philosophy of Poemss is still nonetheless a “sin,” or is rather an obstacle to its enjoyment. And it should be said that you’re reading a sentence written in the English language, and if we can agree on that, then we can hardly be “Miles Away.”
01. Ancient Pony
02. Heads on Heads
05. Miles Away
06. Gentle Mirror
07. Think of Somewhere Nice
08. Losing Meaning
09. Hall of Faces
10. Think of Somewhere Beautiful