Music for Working from Home
How to Soundtrack a Quarantine

How is everyone’s lockdown going?

I know not everyone is locked down, but given the rapid spread of this thing, I imagine we all will be before long. Despite my love of my own company and my surplus of music and books, I’m starting to go a tiny bit stir crazy. It turns out being told to stay home is not the same thing, psychologically, as choosing to stay home. Who knew? I miss the people I used to see regularly, although we have worked out virtual ways to still connect.

As some of you know, I also started a new job recently, and I was in the office for six days before being told to pack up my desk and go work from home for the foreseeable future. I’ve been doing that now for almost a month, and it’s quite strange, especially since I didn’t get to know any of my colleagues before being banished to my house. All of our meetings are virtual now, and since everything was done electronically in the first place, this isn’t a lot different. But I do miss seeing co-workers in person.

The best part about this situation is that I can play whatever music I like, as loud as I like. I am certainly taking advantage of the extra music time to delve into records I have bought but not heard. Which makes up a surprising percentage of my collection, to my shame. For my own work process, it’s better for me if the music is familiar, or if it has no lyrics to distract the wordsmithing part of my brain. So when I need motivation lately, I’ve been turning to old favorites like Marillion and (believe it or not) Def Leppard.

Thankfully there have been a couple releases lately that fit the “without words” mold very well. I’ve been very much enjoying one in particular: Aporia, by Sufjan Stevens and Lowell Brams. Sufjan’s collaborator here is his stepfather, the Lowell of Carrie and Lowell, and Aporia is an album they made by swapping files back and forth over the internet. I have absolutely no idea which parts of this are Stevens and which parts are Brams – or, for that matter, which belong to their bevy of collaborators, including James McAlister and Steve Moore. But it’s not worth trying to puzzle it out.

Instead, just put Aporia on and get sucked in by it. This is a deep forest of synthesizer goodness, each track its own landscape. Some of them are fully developed, like the delightful “Agathon,” while others feel like sketches, like the 57-second “Matronymic.” But when Stevens and Lowell hit upon something magnificent, like the dark and pulsing “The Red Forest” or the sole track with vocals, “The Runaround,” this record feels alive. It’s definitely a patchwork product made in isolation, but in a lot of ways that makes it the perfect soundtrack for our current moment.

An aporia, in philosophical terms, is an expression of doubt, an acknowledgement of contradiction. This album feels uneasy in a lot of respects, like it can’t quite piece together what it sees around it, but it’s doing its best to describe it. There are very few drums, but there is always a sense of forward movement – this is not a record that lingers in one place for any length of time. There are 21 tracks and the whole thing is over in just more than 40 minutes. It doesn’t seem to come to any conclusion, either – final tracks “Eudaimonia” and the minute-long “The Lydian Ring” are just like the others, synthscapes that drop you somewhere new and are over before you’re acclimated.

As this is kind of how I feel about our new world – we’ve been dropped in and are still trying to find our footing – I am finding Aporia oddly comforting. There are some truly excellent moments here, and while I might wish that Stevens and Brams had cooked a few of these tracks a little more thoroughly, I’m fascinated by it. It also plays as a sweet coda to Carrie and Lowell, with Stevens finding artistic connections to strengthen the bond he spoke of so nakedly on that album. I’m not in love with this odd artifact, but I am in pretty deep like with it, and it is soundtracking my days nicely.

Stevens gets accused of excess a lot, but on that score he has nothing on Trent Reznor. Here’s a guy who never stops working – in addition to his three recent Nine Inch Nails projects, he’s scored everything in existence, working tirelessly with longtime collaborator Atticus Ross to bring his signature sonic sculptures to movies like Bird Box and TV shows like Black Mirror and Watchmen.

And somewhere in there, the pair found time to record two and a half hours of new instrumental music, which they have just released for free. Billed as a continuation of 2008’s fantastic Ghosts I-IV, these two new collections are wider in scope and ambition, filtering Reznor’s film work back through his NIN template. Unlike Aporia, these two albums don’t sound like hard drive clearing houses. They each feel of a piece, as if they were composed and recorded in this intended order.

The two albums are very different from one another as well. Ghosts V: Together, the shorter of the two at 70 minutes, is softer and prettier, arrangements unfolding from melodies. It’s not exactly hopeful material, but it is calm and peaceful most of the time. Unlike the ones on the first four Ghosts volumes, these songs have titles, and they seem to offer insight into Reznor and Ross’s intentions: “With Faith,” “Your Touch,” “Hope We Can Again,” “Still Right Here.” This is music, at least on some level, meant to reassure.

So we get lots of quiet pianos and hushed background drones. The title track is ten minutes of slowly building shimmer, the pianos eventually buried beneath clouds of sound and a lovely Robert Smith-style guitar. There’s definitely some tension building across this record – just listen to the spine-tingling low-voice choir on “With Faith,” underpinning everything – but even something called “Apart” is 13 minutes of calm ambience. Like all of Reznor and Ross’s work, this stuff is detailed – listening carefully will bring out so many layers, so many small nuances, and many of those serve to needle the calmer atmosphere with a sense of dread.

That dread comes to the fore on Ghosts VI: Locusts, and honestly, I have to say this: if you’re having a hard time dealing with the ongoing pandemic and the tidal wave of anxiety it has created, listening to this may not be the best idea. Locusts is 83 minutes long, and I found absorbing it all the way through to be physically unsettling. There’s no reprieve – this is the sound of the world quietly collapsing around you while you slowly go mad trying to survive. If you think you couldn’t handle that right now, you’re probably right.

Locusts is no louder than Together, but it’s a lot more menacing. We still get the pianos, but they’re playing dissonant figures now, and the soundscapes behind them are more abrasive. The Miles Davis-esque trumpet in “Around Every Corner” and “The Worriment Waltz” is the perfect touch, lending this repetitive piece a sense of otherworldly desolation. While no song on the original Ghosts broke six minutes, the first three tracks of Locusts last about half an hour, like a slowly rising tide of death from which there is no escape.

A piece like “When It Happens (Don’t Mind Me)” makes my flesh crawl – its unnerving hammered dulcimer foundation is attacked on all sides by darker textures, and it sounds like hordes of insects swarming to attack. There are calmer pieces, like “A Really Bad Night,” but most of this is like the clockwork dread of “Your New Normal,” twisting your nerves into knots. The 13 minutes of “Turn This Off Please” do to me what watching the end of Requiem for a Dream does – just sheer anguish and hopelessness. Even a song called “Almost Dawn” only lets a few shafts of light in before the song devours them.

Locusts is a dark, dark ride, and while it certainly serves as an appropriate response to our new nightmare, it will not serve those with anxiety issues well. What’s amazing to me is that Reznor and Ross recorded these two albums over the last few years, they work well as a reaction to the current world situation. I know a global pandemic could not have been on their minds when they created this music, but in the context of now, it sure sounds like it was. And while I have heard Locusts only the one time, and probably will not go back to it for a while, Together has been a fine companion these past few days.

You can get both Ghosts V and Ghosts VI for free right here .

* * * * *

So it’s finally the end of March, the month that has felt like a million years. (Can you believe it was only January when we lost Neil Peart? That feels like a lifetime ago.) It’s time for my First Quarter Report, and more than usual, this is a list you can just ignore. The final top ten in December will look nothing like this, I am certain. It’s been a strange and random year, and here is the strange and random list-in-progress to reflect that.

10. Kesha, High Road.
9. The Men, Mercy.
8. Field Music, Making a New World.
7. Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling.
6. Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts V and VI.
5. Pearl Jam, Gigaton.
4. The Innocence Mission, See You Tomorrow.
3. Derek Webb, Targets.
2. Nada Surf, Never Not Together.
1. Matt Wilson and His Orchestra, When I Was a Writer.

I genuinely love the top records on this list, but I don’t expect them to be the best of 2020. I know there’s an album here I haven’t reviewed, too, but I will get to that. Next week, in fact. Join me then!

See you in line Tuesday morning.