Beneath the buoyant guitars and bubbling keyboards of Okay’s Huggable Dust, you can make out the sounds of a body settling and unsettling. You can feel the gurgles, the creaks, the releases of a delicate architecture vitally linked to that of singer and songwriter Marty Anderson, who has suffered for years from Crohn’s disease (a serious inflammatory condition of the intestines for which he requires intravenous nutrients and constant medical supervision). In his songwriting, Anderson’s physical awareness is matched only by his spiritual vision, a deceptively simple grasp on love and mortality. What makes Okay’s genre-hopping pop so compelling is that push and pull between the literally visceral and the transcendent.
In Huggable Dust, more so than in the Low Road/ High Road tandem from 2005, the gastrointestinal glitches of synthesizers underly a dome of airy keys, glockenspiel, and effervescent guitar. And unlike Okay’s debuts (the two albums were released on the same day), which could afford to divide their energy over a greater conceptual space, Huggable Dust more urgently congeals such ecosystems: Almost every song on it opens simply and concludes in a tumult troglodytic gurgles and angelic washes. The album unifies high road and low road into a paradoxical, volatile state of transcendence; the image of "huggable dust" itself evokes a tender unity of affection and sublimation.
This metaphysical, metabolical maelstrom is tied together by Anderson’s voice, a reedy sigh that sounds both pained and peaceful, raspy and wispy. He sings simply, ingenuously but wisely — each song records a gradual epiphany that builds with every repetition of mantra or musical phrase. The most truistic lines become hard and real as they cycle through Okay’s digestive system, changing lights before a fluctuating backdrop of instrumentation.
Throughout "Huggable Dust," the album’s true gem, Anderson intones again and again over a gorgeous piano line, "I didn’t know that this something/ Was really nothing in my way," and then concludes, "Now I know that this something/ Just has to leave so it can stay." Anderson has a way of piercing to the heart of the matter; he has no time for obscurantism or interpretive layering. He’s found a complexity in simply laying bare the infection.
One of his deepest seated infections stems from the tragic love triangle that concluded with his friend marrying his former lover. And in an astonishing gesture of reconciliation, he invited them, both Yosef Lewis and Anna Weisman, to join his band. In opening his heart wide he has exposed it to infection; in opening it wider, he has found the cure. While Okay’s songs come at love from every angle, the most affecting ones replay Anderson’s heartbreak in a sort of morbid hypnosis. Through the coda of the gorgeous folk ballad "Natural," he bares his throat to a deluge of synth textures and human harmonies as he chants: "I want you/ I want you/ I want you," until the music cuts out and he adds simply: "To be happy." One can’t help but be unsettled by the image of Lewis and Weisman playing their hearts out behind Anderson’s trembling catharsis.
Major-chord bittersweetness is only one of the myriad styles that Okay pulls off. "Only," a hand-clapping harmony between Anderson and a lover’s answering machine message, hangs in euphoria for its brief span; "Peaceful" lets loose a beat that approximates the sleaze of Britney’s "Slave 4 U" before tacking on a hilariously catchy number on toy piano and glockenspiel; "Loveless" strikes at the more tumultuous side of relationships with its aporetic bouts of drum and tuba, stumbling over glitches and missed queues until the song fills out and hits its emotive stride.
For all of his group’s experimentation, Anderson always returns home. For all the urgency and intensity that fills up the album’s fifty-nine minutes, there is a sense of returning to blissful zero after each song. Like so much of the album (most poignantly in "Huggable Dust"), the subdued "Already" vaporizes the self-induced anxiety and artificial obstacles that clot about love and death. Anderson offers, simply, "You can’t make a black hole want to be bright/ You can’t turn your back on your own life." As the haze clears to reveal an incontrovertible heart, the music fall away and we are left in a two-minute vacuum of silence, left with our own absurd fears and preoccupations, and then merely the breathing of our bodies.