Earlier this year, Angus Finlayson pitched us a joint review of several releases from the Students of Decay label. The Ohio-based label has had a strong year, releasing music by Marble Sky, Mark Banning and Kyle Bobby Dunn, but it was Dunn’s album – Kyle Bobby Dunn & The Infinite Sadness – that eventually became the focus of a piece that wasn’t so much a review, but an evaluation of music and mood, and how they affect each other once the former becomes your day job.
Strange things happen to your listening when it becomes your job.
It’s like long-distance running: you get fatigued, and then pass through fatigue into some weird altered state, and then pass back into fatigue again. Your relationship with music somehow both flattens and deepens – flattens because listening becomes a strip-mining exercise, a means to a salaried end; deepens because, through constant exposure, it comes to mean surprising new things, too. It’s sonic wallpaper, a grinding lived reality much like shitting or thinking about money, and then it’s divine and mysterious. Round and round, endlessly.
Kyle Bobby Dunn & The Infinite Sadness has, more than any other record, been my sonic wallpaper this year. Of course, the question of the value of art can never be boiled down to a simple numbers game. But in the case of the two hour, 10 minute The Infinite Sadness, the vast number of plays it has accrued since it was introduced to me back in July seems like the biggest compliment I can give it. I have listened to this album over and over again, sometimes, I’ll admit, purely to see if it’ll eventually lose its shine. But nope – round and round it goes, endlessly.
I might be wrong on this, but I suspect that anybody who listens to music for a living sees the way they relate to that music change. Or perhaps they just come to recognise more clearly the things that they wanted from music all along. They become ruthless about what it’s for: to soundtrack certain tasks; to encourage or dispel certain moods; to fill a space, or to evoke another one. Often it’s needed to help shape a certain image of ourselves – to help us perform one of our various personalities in a convincing way. After all, why do we listen to sad music when we’re sad, if not to make the sadness feel more plausible?
Dunn, a Canadian composer, belongs to a lineage of musicians who try to elevate the mundane to the realms of the profound. Embarking on a day’s work with his glimmering music spilling out of the speakers echoes the peculiar romanticism that comes with being pissed, in which there seems to be an exquisite poetry behind everything, if you were only sober enough to work it out. I’m reminded of that tired old injunction to “make your life a work of art”. Or, cheesier still, Bryan Adams’ ’91 blub-a-thon ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’, a song which played incessantly on car journeys for the duration of my first incapacitating schoolboy crush. Both instruct us to refract life through the lens of an imagined observer. It’s a pointless gesture, but one which lends a kind of meaning to things, if we’re willing to indulge it.
Kyle Bobby Dunn indulges it wholeheartedly, and at the same time he doesn’t. He creates gorgeous, elliptical clouds of sound, choirs of sustained guitar notes shorn of earthly referent, and then he calls them ‘Variation On A Theme By St. Dipshit’, or ‘Boring Foothills of Foot Fetishville’. He makes albums whose unbroken tranquility seems to demand reverence and contemplation, and then gives them parodic titles like Bring Me The Head Of Kyle Bobby Dunn, as if to mock his attempts to position himself as a serious artist. (In the case of this album, the reference is to those masters of juvenile angst, the Smashing Pumpkins). Dunn sniggers at his art, even as he treats it with heartbreaking seriousness.
We can probably all identify with this tendency to a degree. It’s the curse of self-awareness that even as a thing is being “authentically” done we are also standing outside of it, observing. But Dunn’s approach chimes particularly with me as a critic, as I imagine it might with anybody whose job it is to articulate and assess affect – to take gut-feeling and stick a set of adjectives on it, or a star rating. Having a relationship with music which goes way beyond leisure means constantly testing your own convictions. When fatigue sets in, is your instinct, your kneejerk sense of what is “beautiful”, the only truly trustworthy measure you have? Or is it the most treacherous, a knot of assumptions and un-assessed prejudices which needs to be unpicked? This is an internal debate which can rage back and forth indefinitely.
Dunn’s music repeats itself. He works in cycles, clusters of tones which drift by according to a glacial, recurring logic. As an album, too, The Infinite Sadness induces perpetual deja vu: once you know it intimately you become convinced that the track just starting was playing not five minutes ago. (Or perhaps it was a few hours ago, the last time you listened through). On a macro level, Dunn’s output might be seen to develop hardly at all, beyond certain details of execution. What’s new, really, between A Young Person’s Guide To Kyle Bobby Dunn, recorded in 2009, and now? It’s enough to make you wonder how a person can sit at their desk and do the same thing for years on end. (Or, if you’re reading this on a break from your desk job, perhaps not).
But Dunn’s music doesn’t make any claims to newness or variety, nor should it. The ambient tradition to which it belongs is mostly unconcerned with “progression” or “innovation”, or participation in some petty aesthetic discourse. It’s about either vastly more prosaic things – context, usage, gut-feeling – or vastly more profound ones: love, loss, the infinite. Half the time I think it’s one, and then half the time the other – round and round, endlessly.