Sonae I Started Wearing Black

[Monika Enterprises; 2018]

Styles: hauntological house constructed of fractured concrète
Others: Anika, Sciahri, Carla dal Forno

“I wear black on the outside, ‘cause black is how I feel on the inside,” sang Morrissey, in better days (for him, the less said about his present views and music, the better). The song goes on:

“I know I’m unlovable
You don’t have to tell me
Message received
Loud and clear…”

But why wear black to signify isolation?

Black is a color, and a term, overloaded with significance. Apart from its racial signification, which is not what’s being invoked here, we think of its Western cultural meanings: death, primarily, and mourning (if also elegance). And in following, goth subculture, taking black as sign of rebellious melancholy, but borrowing this from punk and rock and fetish, black leather, black fishnets, black lace; industrial PVC and rubber.

So how can the “spirit” of black now be embodied when buried under the weight of all this history? For an album that’s sonically located firmly in the avant-garde, the inspiration for Sonae’s title is very much an (unfortunately) everyday concern in a society concerned with lovability and validation, romance as fulfillment, and with appearance. Sonia Güttler (Sonae) writes that “resulting from an individual situation (lovesickness), I started to wear black (gaining weight and feeling ugly).”

It’s no surprise, then, that I Started Wearing Black demands a certain mood to appreciate. For me, that was a haze of rainy-afternoon drowsiness and lower back pain, an in-between time, a time for muzzled apprehension and melancholy, a confrontation with ontology.

Hauntology, a term developed by the much-lamented Mark Fisher, is also a term semiotically overloaded with meaning, one that’s become fecund to the point of sterility. On this album, Güttler explicitly sets out to rehabituate the concept — in the process invoking theory as revenant and beginning the cycle of an eternal return. But in doing so — in not just using but renewing hauntology, breathing life into what’s become a thin shade — she also breathes in further death, in turning to face our underlying sense of sociopolitical threat. Resistant melancholy is her response.

Fisher first used his term in relation to acts like Tricky and Burial, and there’s a resemblance of kinds here. Güttler’s work is less “accessible,” but it feels kin to those acts inasmuch as it’s music made in the shadows of council housing and of austerity politics, made of lost futures whose possibility has evaporated, sounds that delve so deep into the in-between spaces of Brutalism that they become texturally lush. This music is a mutant recombination of the personal and the political, from gender to governmentality (Güttler explicitly mentions Turkey’s repressiveness — and the relationship between Germany, where she works, and Turkey holds many horrors). In 1971, Johnny Cash explained that “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back / Up front there ought to be a man in black.” Sonae takes on this task, but challenges the need for a man, referencing as influence Einstürzende Neubaten “without a Big Male Ego.”

But “I Started Wearing Black” does not reclaim the traditionally “feminine.” Rather, its negative affect treads a path somewhere between the stereotypes of feminine wispiness and masculine in-your-faceity. It’s haunted not by the ghosts of black musicians past in the way that Fisher described, but rather by those women who have rejected an expected “femininity” by embracing the harsh and emotionally opaque, while still mining deep emotion. Of these, Nico is patron saint (or Black Madonna), and her specter hangs heavy here, even in the absence of vocals.

Speaking of, I Started Wearing Black is neither loud nor clear — and nor should it be. It’s an album that takes time to coalesce, to assemble. It moves between the lo-fi house sounds of Opal Tapes; the concrete realm of experimentalists like Félicia Atkinson; dubby deconstructed spaces of “surface noise,” and creaking, ominous strings reminiscent of The Marble Index. Lullabies creep in, muffled explosions detonate, beats stutter, cough, and expire.

As listener, you may want to turn your face until the darkness goes, but Güttler gently and insistently turns it back, with a concrete fist in a rubber glove. The plastic squeaks on your cheek (whether bristly or smooth), and the reverberations of that contact sob in echoes that never quite die.

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