Richard There Less is Less

[Self-Released; 2014]

Styles: slowcore, sadcore, folk, post-rock
Others: Codeine, Low, Red House Painters, Mojave 3

DISCLAIMER: Richard There is a contributor to Tiny Mix Tapes’ Comics section. Hence, even more than with all my other pieces, this review should definitely not be trusted. Listen to the music yourself, and come to your own judgement.

I Have This Friend

I have this friend. Well, I use the noun “friend” loosely; I’m talking about some middle-aged man who was assigned to dig next to me at an archaeological excavation, back in the summer of 2008. On site and in the trench, this friend was vaguely notorious, since his favorite pastime was cornering people and talking at them for minutes on end about the various misfortunes he’d had to shoulder over the course of his 40+ years. Admittedly, the only one of these mishaps I can actually recall was the tale of how a former girlfriend had left him for one of his professors. Still, the general impression that he was a sop for bad luck and an all-round gloomy figure prevailed, enough for him to ascend unwittingly to the role of Official On-Site Object of Gossip. During breaks and in the evening, I’d hear people talk about him in less-than flattering tones, gripe about his tendency to follow you around with uplifting anecdotes and optimistic life-lessons, and also float the occasional jibe vis-à-vis his corpulence. By the end of the excavation’s six-week run, almost everyone had geared themselves to avoid or “handle” him, for fear no doubt of being infected with his contagion, yet on my part I was already enough of a marginal figure to be unmoved by the possibility of becoming some unlovable pariah. I listened compliantly to the knotted story of his life, laughed at examples of his blue humor1, and worked uncomplainingly beside him as I dug a slot-trench with a mattock and lost around a stone in weight. Regardless of whether I’d been a happy and willing audience, he must have been pleased with my performance as his sounding-board, because as the excavation closed itself down after another season of booze, constipation, and debauchery, he asked me for my email address2.

So fast-forward to 2014, and he’s still sending me emails, about nothing in particular, despite the fact that we last crossed paths in 2011 (when he was in town for yet another season of antiquity and alcohol), and despite the fact that I’ve been in Switzerland for a whole year, doing something completely unrelated to our one shared interest, archaeology. As of writing, he’s still unemployed, still unattached, still friendless, and still living on his own in a flat somewhere in the south of England, next to a crazy neighbor who gives him constant grief about the finer points of door-closing volumes and flowerpots. One new development in his life, however, is that he’s being treated by a therapist for depression. This is where the relevance to Richard There’s Less is Less finally enters the story, because without being too pessimistic, cynical, and unfairly damning, it seems to me that offering cognitive behavioral therapy (which is what he’s being given), or perhaps any kind of therapy, to someone who has very little in their life is a futile gesture. In fact, conditioning someone to respond positively to circumstances that — by all popular accounts and sentiments — are decidedly negative is, if not futile, immoral and unethical. True, it might afford my friend some contentment with his lot in life, but if successful, it would also by extension make him content with the society, the state, and the system that imposed this lot on him, that spat him onto its scrapheap3. Again, if successful, it would arguably serve to remove opposition to what is an unjust and corrupt state of affairs, one that isolates and estranges people as it pits them against each other in a competitive race to the bottom.

In other words, my friend’s therapy is striving to make him happier about his having less, and in much the same vein, Richard There sets off on the musical journey charted in Less is Less. This isn’t the only parallel, because in “I Am Free,” we learn that it was also feminine betrayal that started Richard on his quest to find comfort in existential minimalism. Amidst echoed finger-picking and the lugubrious tinkling of piano, he sings, “Whore, I’m leaving now,” and its from this point of rupture that he begins trying to convince himself that he’s free, or rather, that he’s better off by not being better off.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t succeed. It’s not just the lyrics of “I Am Free” that motivate this conclusion, what with its concourse of similes implying that a man without a woman is as meaningless as “Some words without a meaning” and “A man without a path,” but the constant mood of despondency and dejection radiated by his vocals. Throughout the album, and even as he repeats ostensibly positive mantras, he affects a timbre fulsome with misery and despair, as if he doesn’t really believe the slogans intended to extricate himself from his funk. In the gloaming of “A Little Bit Less,” which alternates between a pointillistic guitar melody and passing fogs of distortion, he gasps, “I’ve been watching the birds/ Flying high in the sky/ They just fly/ To fly,” raising the animal kingdom and its unquestioning, unconscious automaticity as an ideal for the dissatisfied. Yet quite apart from how the halting, stressed gravity of his voice insinuates that he’s galled by the possibility of switching off his own mind and thereby alleviating his grief, his overemphasized intonation provides the album’s one weak link.

At least for these ears, his devastated croon in “Dear One,” where he pleads with God to reveal the sense in the senselessness of existence, and his downbeat observations of human activity in “People,” are a little too strong at times. They invite a suspicion that he’s attempting to foist his emotions and feelings on the listener, to directly impart the desired emotional response, rather than simply presenting a “situation” via his wistful, wafting music; having faith in the power of this music to resonate; and allowing the listener to react without being overtly nudged.

This stands as another analogy to my trowel-wielding friend, who would lock you into a tight spot and then drown you in his sorrows with such persistence that you’d eventually have no room but to sympathize with him. Ultimately, this behavior was counterproductive, since when you were finally left alone, the memory of being more or less cajoled into sympathy would make you feel unsympathetic toward him. Moreover, the kind of hang-dog accentuation Richard adopts in the otherwise ornately solemn “Axolotl” has other repercussions too, in that at a few select junctures, it almost sounds as though he’s mocking or parodying his own melancholy. So aside from being layered too thickly, their sporadically caricatured tenor also has the effect of denying the validity and reality of such moods, of undercutting any claim they have to attention and redress. Maybe this is intentional, and in some ways, it adds an interesting facet to Less is Less4, but at the same time, it’s quite a shame, because as far the album’s music goes, its hyper-nostalgic folk and dewy slow/sadcore is perfectly affecting.

Indeed, it’s during the sub-nine-minute instrumental “They Say It’s A New Year” that the album lives up to its premise of documenting a serenely minimalistic alternative to an existence riven by regrets, sentimentality, and looking back in anger. The piece floats languorously by in a stream of delayed guitar, tenderly plucked chords, and the sampled ambiance of foreign bazaars, and as it glides in strings and coils toward a patiently intense ending, you almost start to believe the old cliché that less truly is more. However, this philosophy is undermined by the return of vocals for closer “Back,” which have Richard affirming, “Every people I ever lost/ I got back in my dreams/ Every time I ever spent/ I got back in my dreams.” Here, there’s a palpable (and most likely deliberate) lack of conviction in his own reassurances, and so rather than adding to the tranquility of his new, uncomplicated life, his hushed voice contrarily evokes its impoverishment.

And this is probably to be expected, given that album is called Less is Less. To be expected, because no amount of sophistry, self-deception, and rationalization can change the human social instinct and its dependency on meaningful contact with other people. We get depressed when we’re cut off from others and left to rot by ourselves in some tiny apartment, and even if sometimes our predicaments can be ameliorated by weening ourselves off the constructed belief systems and ideologies that are instilled into us from birth, and that tell us we must become artists or astronauts or athletes or, God forbid, millionaires, no amount of counselling is going to tear us from our need for company of one stripe or another. So I hope, for the sake of my digging buddy and for Richard There, that they’re not duped into thinking it’s good to be on your own. Because it’s not.

1. The one joke of his I can remember: What do they call three sheep tethered to a lamppost in Wales? A leisure centre.
2. simon.chandler@hotmail.co.uk
3. That said, I do appreciate the possibility that therapy may on occasion equip people with the resources to change their circumstances for the better, and that it doesn’t simply teach them to passively accept such circumstances.
4. Interesting, because one of the hallmarks of those depressed and low in self-esteem is the habit of belittling their own condition and denying that they deserve to be helped.

Links: Richard There

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