Sometimes you feel a hole in your soul and you have no name for it. The one in which my body and mind’s more nebulous complaints echoed for the last two years had no real shape or colour, but I now realize what it was: a crevasse, deep and wide, waiting to be filled with the diffusing mist that calls itself COMPLAINER ORIENTATION. Which, if you are interested, is the name of the long-awaited new LP by Craig McElhinney.
McElhinney’s last official record, ‘Sore Loser,’ emerged at the tail end of 2011. It doesn’t exactly feel like forever ago, but for a musical conjurer as hardworking and prolific as Craig, it’s been surprisingly long between drinks. He’s hardly been slacking off, playing regular live shows, collaborating on oddball sets with Chris Cobilis. He teamed up with Kynan Tan for an audiovisual overture to Aimee Smith’s dance work ‘Wintering,’ and recorded music that’s either snuck up modestly on Soundcloud or else not wandered into public view. By anyone’s standards, he’s been a busy boy.
With ‘Complainer Orientation,’ the ever-exploratory McElhinney leads us into terrain that’s both uniquely strange and yet inexplicably familiar; I guess the word for that is ‘uncanny.’ Having painted with mixed, eclectic palettes spanning countless melodies and moods (2011’s ‘Temple Pathworkings,’) and wandered through sprawling pastoral/botanical dreamscapes (2010’s ‘Be Water My Friend,’) this new outing almost feels like a return to the solemn, glacial, monochromatic world that Craig immersed us in on his first two records (‘You and Me Are Young And Brutal,’ and ‘Loser Orientation,’ 2009). But to suggest that ‘Complainer Orientation,’ is a mere throwback to a vibe plumbed four years ago would be both unfair and just plain wrong. Craig is always moving forward and rarely looking back, however snaking his path may be.
A dimly lit shape greets you on the album’s cover. I couldn’t tell you for sure what it is, though it resembles a squat stone bottle, or mottle-glazed vase. Its half-shadowed, cryptic allure nicely presages the album’s feel: it’s a record of mostly darkness and flickers in light, where the shapes and surfaces of things emerge but don’t give themselves away.
We enter via ‘Them.’ Hear the dusty sound of a moment stretched over the horizon: a plateau of drone and lapping textures whose essence is ‘stillness.’ Here I could mention track lengths, for curiosity’s sake (they vary considerably), but it’s irrelevant really: for all intents and purposes, time stops during this opening tune, and the album flows as a single entity rather than individual long/short excursions. ‘Strange Readings,’ hints at clairvoyance with its ambiguous title and quietly looping Gypsy-scale melody, enveloped in the blur of hiss and crackle, before ‘Ancient Path II’ harnesses that layer of surface noise and tempers it into a seething, surging rhythm offset by enigmatic percussion. Hooded figures clutching lanterns move single-file through a moor, and the whole thing plays out on a grainy, failing VHS tape at three in the morning.
Next it’s ‘Sokak’, which is the sort of tune that only Craig McElhinney could make: for the most part it’s barely there, the faint echo of a monastic chant deep within a cave. Eventually it’s joined by warped stomp-and-clap rhythms and a digitally fried vocal warble that could come equally from a man as a howling wolf, then back to the choral wisps, but with newfound clarity. Other people might have the technical nous to create this track, but they simply wouldn’t think to do it. The weird genius of such layerings is haunting and singular.
You float through the soft-edged, ambient beauty of ‘Lost’ (no points for guessing which Craig-adored TV show inspired that one), which opens up into the synth-patter and yawn of ‘Soft NASA.’ The latter sounds like what I imagine space to feel like, but I’ve never been to space so instead I’ll compare it to the immensity you feel when you’re swimming far from shore, staring out and down through snorkel-goggles into the sea’s overwhelming endlessness. It’s as close as you’ll get this week to a sonic equivalent of the feeling of awe.
That sense of awe is channeled into a more melodic, deliberate form on ‘Divorce Bliss,’ though it remains strictly liquid and light. I can’t tell exactly how tongue-in-cheek the [record label] Badminton Bandit site is being when it proclaims Divorce Bliss to be the album’s “first single.” It spans more than seven minutes comprised entirely of slow-bleed chords and ambient textures, and isn’t exactly about to elicit high rotation on Triple J. But the thought kind of works: this is classic Craig in warm bathwater drone mode, the sort of track that you’re almost guaranteed to enjoy if you’re prepared to take a few slow breaths and let it wash over you.
‘Misery Control’ feels like a slightly re-hued appendix to ‘Divorce Bliss,’ before ‘Unknown Door’ opens up, dense with those undulating patches of light that reflect off a swimming pool onto any nearby surface that will host them. Somewhere in there, there’s what sounds like an autoharp being played in the biggest cathedral ever conceived, and a circling buzz of something more sinister. The hint of darkness drops away, however, leaving you with a flicker of lucidity and optimism.
Back in the opening track (‘Them,’) Craig includes a snippet of movie dialogue, which forms one of the record’s rare linguistically-driven moments:
“I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. I feel much better now. I really do.”
The quote comes from HAL 3000, the memorably personified spaceship computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its inclusion reads in several ways. For one thing, it feels like a cheeky message from the Craigler beyond the listening interface, a man offering a trademark smirk from within his shadowy hood: “Sorry I’ve been away so long, guys, but I’m back and it’s only going to get better.” It’s almost like the sort of pop-culture interpolation a rapper might use to usher in a fresh offering after a period of hiatus. But more interestingly, the quote comes from a character both machine and human, and it plays out in a way that is both charmingly innocent and chillingly dark, a dichotomy that in some ways characterizes ‘Complainer Orientation’ itself. It’s not a record of “light and shade” so much as an immersive swirl of greys that compellingly blend the two. It’s uncertain whether the image on the front is one object, half-lit, or two things: one in light, and one in shadow. Similarly, it’s hard to say whether ‘Complainer Orientation’ is imbued with optimism, grimness, both by turns, or each inhabiting the other. All I know is it’s a beautiful thing, one I’ll be revisiting: if not to decode, then to simple relive.
You can buy ‘Complainer Orientation’ online from Badminton Bandit’s bandcamp page.