David Thomas Broughton David Thomas Broughton vs. 7 Hertz

[Acuarela; 2007]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: dirge, folk, mope rock, blues, experimental, singer-songwriter
Others: Antony & The Johnsons, Six Organs of Admittance, Low, Cat Power

David Thomas Broughton makes music that feels like lugubrious, agonizing death. It’s relentlessly bleak in its bludgeoning repetition, and it renders typical critical terms like “heart-wrenching” utterly useless. It’s more like bone-splintering. It plays like the soundtrack to gnashing radioactive silt. Listening to it, you can feel the throat tighten in an unseen chokehold and the stomach flex in on itself. It’s not tears coming down the pike, but another seemingly impossible twist of the gutwrench. It’s sitting in the mess you’ve made and staring down a dismal demise.

Released in October of 2007, this collaboration with string ensemble 7 Hertz is somehow a starker affair than A Complete Guide To Insufficiency. The occasional wistful sadness of that record has been replaced by unrelenting gloom ‘n’ doom. This shit hurts like hell, without needing to get too involved. It is layered moan-crooning and sawing two-note acoustic guitar progressions with a bed of clarinet, violin, and double bass providing rhythm, countermelody, and eerie textures. (The exception is the dissonant, percussive flurries that end "No Great Shakes" and "River Outlet.") For those of us who loathe the direction Low has gone on recent albums, there are still people who are taking on stark naked dread with challenging artistic relish. He’s not the only one -- check Mammal or Pink Reason for especially grueling and exciting examples of this -- but he’s perhaps the most accessible. There’s some incredibly dark music out there, but I believe Broughton, mainly through his immediately arresting singing voice, could surprise those not usually interested in dirge atmospheres. That pained, baritone anti-croon remains Broughton’s most striking asset.

As usual, the lyrics are either obliquely disturbing or plain and mantra-like. The baldness of the grim sentiments only rub you the wrong way at first, until they’re gradually assumed into the ritual and cemented in the mix (helped in no small part by Broughton’s concise delivery). Considering that this recording was improvised in one take, it’s amazing it feels as complete as it does. The only thing that throws it off is the chuckle-filled false-start posing as an interlude ("Jolly") that rests at its center. But perhaps it was included to note that these people weren’t overly grave about the undertaking. Otherwise the session (as with Insufficiency, recorded in a church) might’ve come off like an ashen prelude to a ritual suicide.

Like any record of this sort, David Thomas Broughton vs. 7 Hertz requires patience and open-mindedness, but it has the added benefit of being compact. Unlike, say, the last two Scott Walker albums, this is a harrowing experience that doesn’t need to completely overwhelm the adventurous listener. The shrilly dissonant closing section of the last song may put one to the test, but it’s nonetheless a welcome release from the tortured staidness of the preceding rounds. Perhaps one could call the album “tossed-off” and not be completely in the wrong. But it doesn’t really matter. If you’re up for it, this album will provide you with an indelibly mesmerizing, nighttime foray into the skeeving black milk of human frailty.

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