In a short essay titled “On the Middle Ages,” a young and burgeoning Walter Benjamin locates a crucial “negative moment” that came to define, and delimit, our contemporary culture; it is the moment when art became “mannered imagination,” as Romantic philosopher Fredrich Schlegel puts it: an insistent, rational absolutism. Of course, in the spirit of irrationality (as well as that of its compatriot, atemporality), the young Benjamin never pins down this “moment” particularly, and only allots the monumental topic about three pages of space, presumably to be returned to. The “negative moment” — and, I suppose, its equally impossible “positive” corollary — loom as necessary, yet always unimaginable, spaces in which one may possibly formulate liberty.
There is a generative sense of the perpetual “to be continued” and “to be announced” in both the projects of Benjamin and Torontonian songwriter Sandro Perri. Perri evokes a somehow sensible (and sensitive) irrationality, both musically and lyrically, from his title Impossible Spaces and its opening multiplication of appropriately spacious raw guitars, onwards, making as fervent a motion as is possible within an also, in part, familiar (or, deeply rational) textural folk-jazz (of the sort Radiohead, for instance, has recently explored) towards the undoing of Benjamin and Schlegel’s bane: the world solidified. Instead, Perri begins his first song, about changing and cycling and circling, “laid in the arms of an absence.” It is romantic, an indefinite yet absolute moment, replete with alluring shakers. As Perri puts it, “maybe we change,” emphasized by his modulating keyboards; likewise, the word cruelty is pronounced “cru-ey-el-ty,” forever changed and changing. Like Escher’s impossible staircases, Perri riffs on the preexisting, establishing, and deconstructing (or, jamming on) musical staircases, while recognizing that architecture is never quite undone.
Perri’s uncertain lyrical foci and restless Dirty Projectors-like vocal acrobatics are doubled by the musical to and fro, as instruments ebb and flow and tempos temper. As on dub tunes, there is always the sense of a knob being turned in the ever-tweaking of an imperfect mix, an indistinct effect applied gingerly here and there on a widening palette. This was Perri’s strategy as one of his previous incarnations, Polmo Polpo: releasing unsettling depth charges into sinewy drone. This nautical metaphor — which I’ll exempt us from extending to seasickness and drowning, though those images too might be apt — is made manifest in the swimming lesson gone fairytale-awry in “Wolfman.” The near-mythological is another impossible space that Perri teases out and challenges through non-prescriptive rewrites. There are no Ovidian screeds here that begin-middle-and-end, though Grimm-like touchstones momentarily surface, such as the monsters threatening but managing to coexist with Perri’s tentative landscapes and personhoods.
Perri favors mellifluous medley — flow — over memorable melody, but those too emerge if you listen long enough. His is the lithe post-woe-is-me of a resigned sadsack reborn, the kind of melancholia that isn’t quite sadness and that you might experience after or during a dream. Perri is coping, not merely relentlessly questioning, but the open-ended question is one of his chiefest forms. Uncertainties become his most persistent refrains, instabilities reinforced, as happens in the “Suicide is Painless”-tinged, though somewhat cheerier and more brightly adorned soul-jam “How Will I?” He sings “love is over” in a way that could not be devoid of loveliness or loving, again revealing the duplicity of language, music, and musical language [correction: the actual lyric, according to Perri, is “love is bolder”]. If Perri didn’t play with language or musical language as insistently as he does, his approach could be accused of solipsism, focusing primarily on a self beyond external influence. But Perri’s self is perpetually complicating, and even doubling, itself. (See previous solo album Tiny Mirrors or his other collaborative project Double Suicide, for further evidence of Perri’s obsession with duality.) In the aforementioned “Wolfman,” the phrase “I wanna come” is used either euphemistically or naively or, likely, both. Likewise, on song after song, changing arpeggios and chord changes reinforce their instability through repetition and variation. Just as bossa nova gently but radically rethought and re-felt samba in late-50s Brazil, Perri manages to preserve groove even as he softens and liberates it. Occasionally, this borders uncomfortably on maximalism as needless obfuscation — too many indecisive sounds and ideas filling out a track — but dulcet beauty, and an effort to stay beautiful, remain.
On the album’s final, most simple, and lovely track, “Impossible Spaces,” the “morning-after,” already the realm of indistinct contemplation, becomes “some kind of anti-matter,” further dematerialized and technologically diffuse, a distant emotion made proximal yet alien. Earlier, the eye itself is technological apparatus, ourselves, yet not us, as Perri “zoom[s] in again.” At his most melodic, Perri croons, “you and I create those plausible spaces,” though the “you” is additionally made uncertain by its enmeshing among a variety of bird-like sounds, which complicates the anthropocentric dimensions of the situation. To-what-or-to-whom-am-I-writing-or-singing is a crucial metaphysical concern that Perri is never shy about sweetly confronting, despite his inability to offer resolution. The album concludes with a sleepily comforting Bacharach-esque horn section, song become salve, a recombinant but reassuring singularity when fraught with crossroads upon crossroads.