There are very few groups that are a genre in and of themselves. But there is only one that, although it may not seem to, really distances itself from elitism. The Books write music that seems to be for clever people... mistakenly. Far from being arrogant and haughty, it sounds like a master class in musicology, like a desire to simply transmit everything that intricate folk, post-pop, and vanguard experimental music have to offer, which is a lot. Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong want to tell stories, to say things. In their albums, they offer everything that they know generously, giving it away without asking anything in return except ears that want to listen to the fancies that pass through their heads. They have been doing this as skilfully as they know how, especially since the sublime “Lost and Safe” (2005), the best album that year for the advanced tastes of those at The Wire, and the work where the pronounced rigidity of their previous LPs began to ease up. Since then, The Books sound less like a laboratory and more like a reflection, less like mad scientists and more like digital poets. There they launched themselves into exploring a greater melodic push, that took them away from the hermetic, and also made a key decision for achieving the total democratisation of their sound, the incorporation of Nick’s voice supporting his leafy collage of found sounds. This move was criticised by people who saw pure speculation in it. Take no notice. The Books are not only suitable for all audiences, but rather obligatory for them.
This play seemed perfect to us fans, of course. It implied the culmination of a maturity that–this is the best– still has much to say. The incorporation of Zamutto’s soothing voice into the weave of samples did not at all lessen the Americans’ meticulousness; moreover, this is precisely what allowed their songs to take in more oxygen and breathe more easily. “The Way Out” shows this idea, presenting itself as their most frontal and also most accessible work. Yes, there is nothing to fear in The Books’ proposal. It was made perfectly clear to me at their recent concert in Primavera Sound, when I convinced four reluctant friends who weren’t familiar with them to come with me to see them. Less than an hour later, they left with their mouths hanging open. On the ATP stage, the duo presented new songs like “A Cold Freezin’ Night” –an instant classic– and they showed their inimitable virtuosity, the kind reserved for the truly unique. A little later they released another advance from the album, the glorious “Beautiful People”. With that, some of us started to salivate over what we foresaw to be the full demonstration of all the group’s abilities. And this is the case. The Books make difficult things easy and incongruent things fascinating, and “The Way Out” is the definitive proof. Although none of their songs has anything to do with the others, although each one is a horse of a different colour, the genetics and the internal dialectic of this album, always sensual, never phoney, suggests the only solution possible for a jigsaw puzzle that is a priori impossible to put together.
This is their most long-lasting, insatiable album, the longest and most profuse in elements and movements, the one with the greatest unfolding of the band’s creative flow. As on their other titles, the script plays with different levels of reading, configuring its own semantics. The sound matters as much as the word, and the word becomes melody until without warning, everything turns backwards, and the melody becomes word. The same thing happens in terms of rhythms and structures. The fluidity of the development of the structures based on bits of sound oozes delicacy. The melodies don’t falter for even a moment, and over the fifty minutes of “The Way Out”, not even a pothole appears in the road. Even so, even though it all flows as smooth as silk, they had a hell of a time finding a label that wanted to put the album out. Having left Tomlab over contractual differences –poor distribution in North America, problems with the payment of royalties– they looked and looked for a company that would take them on, even trying multinationals that didn’t even bother to answer them to tell them no. Risk, as we know, is notable for its absence from recording company decisions, but we can believe, we must believe, that there are still minds willing to take on albums like this one. Finally, Jeremy de Vine of Temporary Residence was the visionary who decided to activate the return of The Books through the front door.
For the last five years, there had been little news of them: their collaboration with Scott Herren on “Prefuse 73 Reads the Books” (2005), the cover of Nick Drake along with José González for “Dark Was the Night” (2009), and that commission from the French Ministry of Culture that crystallised in the hilarious “Music for a French Elevator”(2006), a series of short pieces intended to soundproof the lifts of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Saint Étienne, and which came to emphasise their more conceptual side. We also know that in the last five years, Nick and Paul have moved, been married, and had children. In December of 2008 they started to work on a new album, and on the last day of last year, Nick announced on his blog that “The Way Out” was finished. He said, “all the detail that I love is coming through in full relief.” And that’s true. All of their universe is compressed inside here, and could be synthesised in two concepts. One, the literary approach that leads them to write with sounds more than compose, the same things that brings them closer to Oulipo, for the challenges that they set for themselves, their encyclopaedic curiosity, and their twisted character. And second, that fantastic play of wisdom-absurd opposites that runs into pure sense of humour, that unknown ingredient that escapes so many groups, and which we talked about yesterday regarding The Chap’s “Well Done Europe”.
The project The Books has evolved in the best way. Recorded in Zammutto’s studio, an isolated caravan in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of Vermont, “The Way Out” distances itself from “Thought for Food” (2002) and “The Lemon of Pink” (2003), but its underlying desire is the same. It begins refined and clean with “Group Autogenics I”disposed to reach “The infinite of everything”, gets its sparkplugs going with “IDKT”,and starts to move with “I Didn’t Know That”. From there, all that is left is to let themselves be carried away by a current of pure logic and extreme beauty. We will reach magical peaks like “I Am Who I Am” (which reaffirms their obsession with evangelists), the excellent tone of the amazing “Free Translator” (“...and I see...”) or the miracle called “The History of Hip-Hop” as a sort of cosmogony of the genre. The listening is endless. Paul’s far-out collection of files –the same one where his indispensable visual aids are stored– uses his best finds. Among the thousand and one references that are impossible to distinguish are voices distorted with a Talkboy, extracts of self-help or hypnosis sessions, urgent harmonica solos, hymns sung by Eskimos, “a wonderful phrase by Gandhi” and many, many more surprises. Among all of them, my favourite is the lyrics of “Beautiful People” dedicated to the figure that rules over the mathematical relation between musical notes: the twelfth root of 2. This is the most important number and this “The Way Out”, as the title suggests, is the most brilliant point of flight to fly away with this season.