Much discussion has been raised over the past couple of weeks over the idea/construct/mirage of “authenticity,” whether in terms of Whitney Houston’s death and the imagined nostalgia for her music (for some of us) or in terms of Born to Die and the “genuineness” of Lana Del Rey’s aesthetic persona (our own Susannah Young perfectly dissected this recently). More theatrical are the various creations of artists like Nicki Minaj, who obsess over perception to the point of gimmick, guarding the border between the absurd and the meaningful. Whether or not we feel an artist needs to create a stage character for his or her performance-self, we do, I think, feel that at the end of the day (cheese alert) it’s the music that should count the most. When discussion of nonmusical attributes of the artist overpowers discourse about the art, we stop being listeners and start being viewers.
With Big Sir, though, it gets a little more complicated. It may be a little misleading of me to contextualize Before Gardens After Gardens in the way I have; after all, Big Sir have little enough to do, musically, with either LDR or Nicki Minaj. Instead, the connection is in contrast: The bass and beats-driven act are tethered to reality in a very real way, one that disallows the fictionalizing of self-hood. The group’s two principle members, Lisa Papineau (a contributor to M83’s Before the Dawn Heals Us) and Juan Alderete (of Mars Volta fame), both were diagnosed with chronic life-threatening illnesses since the last Big Sir album, in 2006. Embracing that knowledge and making it a cornerstone of the record – in Papineau’s words, “on our album, death is a ship, and her name is The Calico” – is about as brave and real as it gets.
The Calico shows up pretty soon, too. Opener “Regions” is a crash course in the Big Sir sound: minimalistic and measured, Alderete’s magnetic bass lines and Papineau’s ghostly, breathy voice duel above and among strains of synth. “Regions” is a downright groovy song, thanks in large part to Alderete’s dexterity, but the song is also an exercise in structure, with the vocals and bass giving way to cello pulls and the low-key drum machine. Lyrically, Papineau makes choices that emphasize sound over narrative, but the Calico’s spectre hangs over it all: “Oh, the Calico, take me there to the end of the line.”
Throughout the album, Papineau sticks to her quieter impulses; even when the tempo speeds up, as in “Right Action,” a dance track that would make an excellent addition to any FIFA menu screen, the vocals are airy and soft, looped and reverbed. Midway through in “The Kindest Hour,” we hear a much fuller sound, with Mars Volta alum Cedric Bixler-Zavala anchoring the song with a full drum set, while shivering viola notes give the song a desperate edge. Following that track, the album turns away from the synths, preferring Bixler-Zavala’s drums and the contributions of a number of other musicians to the machine. “Be Brave Go On” showcases Papineau’s lower registers, which turn menacing as the imperatives become more chant-like. “Our Pleasant Home” boasts a gorgeous collage of looped, melodic strains of Papineau’s voice, and coda “1 Thousand Petals” is a haunted lullaby: “Gentle little lifetime, you were so fine … you were all mine.” The line truncates the album’s meaning into a few words, and the quiet clarity of “were” is devastating. It’s a sad, powerful ending to an album all too aware of its – and our – transience, with no masks in sight.