By Matt Meade
I’ve spent the year since Ben Shaw’s 2014 album Goodbye, Cagoule World listening to his back catalog. It sounds like he has too.
When Ben Shaw turned in Goodbye, Cagoule World he was doing it because it was time for him to turn in that kind of record. He had made his weird little sound collections and he was overdue for a record full of spare, solo acoustic songs about angst and depression. Because he is Ben Shaw, he also made sure to add a tesla coil or two as well as carefully positioned feedback from a noise-core artist. But all that weirdness couldn’t save it from feeling forced. The whole endeavor sounded like it was someone else’s idea and Shaw was doing everything he could to make it work.
Guppy is something of a return to form. Shaw’s back catalog is great. It’s full of strange, damaged, and experimental songs and ideas, from the defiant There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet, to the needy, Summer in the Box Room, to the unstable and unparalleled Rumfucker.
Guppy has far more to do with those records than it does Goodbye, Cagoule World. It is sumptuous and multilayered. And yes I know multi-layered is redundant, but somehow the word layered just doesn’t do this record justice. This record goes all the way to the earth’s mantle, all the way through the shale. Once you get to the inner core of the world, it turns out it’s filled with piles of distorted soundscapes and allusions to long gone radio shows. It sounds like a room full of flitting insects and someone practicing a horn badly. In that strange chaos Shaw manages to find the pulse of songcraft and melody.
But these are not three-chord sad-bastard songs; there are no lyric based ballads about broken hearts and alienation belted out like the coffee shop is closing. As a matter of fact, you rarely hear Shaw’s singing voice. It’s so rare an occurrence that when the commercials and found-sound of coupons being clipped out of the newspaper are all spliced into the songs, they seem to speak for him. The sound fragments are wry and caustic. They are sneering and malevolent, just like the songs themselves. Just like him.
Songs like “good arrows” and “Hell’s Teeth” thump along and threaten with a strange drum beat or a David Lynch hum. A song like “Pride of Canada,” creeps and lurks. After all, Ben Shaw is more about bizarre atmospheres than he is about anything else. He is someone who has clearly spent time with The Liars, The Books, Menomena and all those post-rockers who are sick of being told what to do, folks who would rather short out their radio than listen to “Brown Eyed Girl” one more time.
Shaw does all of this experimenting and upending without sacrificing narratives, albeit ones that are as elusive as they are abstract. For example, when Ben Shaw gives you a title like “Fishing with dad (no dad)” it’s hard tell if he is earnestly writing about someone grappling with the loss of a parent or if he is mocking the whole concept of writing something so self-indulgent. Despite the abstraction, the song is moving. With the sound of crickets, the layer of conversation and the tuba buzzing like a confused swarm of bees, it hints at a kind of melancholy we all feel.
By the final song “Not today, Satan,” all the wry eye-brow raising becomes a little overwrought. The somber squeeze of the music wrapped around the cringe inducing self-help speak doesn’t work when it comes at you head on, but the failure of this song does little to derail the gleaming, vibrating triumph that is this record.
Because, believe it or not, the record is some kind of triumph.
Guppy is Shaw’s apology to himself. It is him giving himself permission to make the bizarre kind of songs that he has always wanted to make. It is full of violins being tuned, speak and spells begging to be put out of their misery, and telex machines scraping out their messages. It sounds like all the found-sound transitions of Wilco’ Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stretched over the course of an entire moody record. Somehow Shaw makes that poignant and fascinating.
“Pylon pile-on” is one of the most affecting pieces on the record. With its bleeping melody and swirling progression, it could be the score to a film about futuristic race car drivers betting with their lives or drug addicts trying to recover at a beach resort. By not pinning it down, by not defining it, he opens something up for anyone to enter. Some cardboard cutout of a world, a diorama for us to populate with our own depression, our own dashed dreams, our own daily humiliations. It is a place anyone is allowed to go, as long as they are sad.