Three albums in, are we finally ready to define the Books? Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong have already created two of the most essential records of the decade: 2002’s Thought for Food, which established their signature combination of live instrumentation, found sound and field recordings, and 2003’s The Lemon of Pink, which used the same template to even greater emotionally stunning effect. The somewhat endearing “folktronica” label has been difficult to commit to, and with every album the surprises each new listen brings only make the duo harder to pin down.
The big surprise of the initial listen of the Books’ third album, Lost and Safe, comes about forty seconds into opener “A Little Longing Goes Away” (yes, the wordplay seen on the former albums continues). With a lazy slur, Zammuto’s slightly altered voice slides into the mix, and the first permanent member of the Books to provide in-house vocals muses “Yes and no are just distinguished by distinction, so we choose the in-between.” It’s a typical lyric for the album, simultaneously disappointing in the way that all things must change and revelatory in that if there were lyrics on the previous albums, those lyrics would have sounded exactly like this. The Zen-like musings are very much the literary equivalent of the sound collages the band employs (is it any surprise the band samples Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” on the album?).
But it’s the delivery of those lyrics that’s most likely going to be a point of contention. Manipulated and nearly monotone, the vocals often take on a robotic quality that initially creates a cold environment. It penetrates nearly every song, causing the album to blend together in a way the duo’s music never did before. But closer listens reveal a more subtle yearning in the voice, a desire to belong where it does not. This alienation is present in all of the Books’ work, from the found sample that begins Thought for Food’s “Motherless Bastard” to The Lemon of Pink’s closer, “PS” (what the hell are they laughing at?). Lost and Safe could very well be the experience of some unknown person coming down from the mountains to take in all of modernity in one terrifying breath.
It’s this confrontation with technology that makes the group so important (and what makes the best case for the folktronica designation). The ease with which organic collages are placed under electronic manipulation creates a contradiction that is at once fascinating and soothing, strange and beautiful, jarring and contemplative, lost and safe.
Like the best musicians, the Books have progressed with each album while still maintaining their voice. The addition of vocals may initially turn off some, but in time the new style melds with the old, much in the same way that what has come before sits comfortably next to what is yet to come throughout this forty-two minute album. It is this unity in such volatile conditions — nature’s persistence in the midst of chaos — that has defined the duo’s sound over these three equally worthy records. But now, by giving themselves a voice, perhaps they can define it themselves. The record ends exploring this Buddhist lynchpin:
And all that it could do was hold tight
To that that it was not.
It told itself it needed names
And in so doing it became.
This is the birth
That everyone is talking about.
The one assumed but not remembered.
But death does not forget.
The end will remind it to cure it of itself.