If it weren’t for Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, Nico Muhly and Teitur’s Confessions (Nonesuch, 2016) would easily be my favorite album of 2016. It’s hard to be succinct when describing this album, so bear with me as I do my sometimes-overly-wordy thing.
I discovered the Faroese singer-songwriter Teitur listening to FM radio back in 2009 or 2010. It was weird that I was listening to FM radio at all then, and it is weird that I found something that I liked. Specifically, I heard his song, “All My Mistakes,” from a compilation album called The Art of Peace, which was a benefit project for Tibetan freedom. “All My Mistakes” completely floored me—I literally pulled over so I could listen more attentively! After the song was over, the DJ said the name of the song and singer. Of course, I went home and tried to find whatever info I could on “Tighter.” Eventually, I figured out who he was (and how to spell his name). Check out Poetry & Aeroplanes if you want to hear what he “usually” sounds like.
I knew nothing about Nico Muhly before finding this album. This is a shame, as he is a pretty prolific American composer; he studied at Juilliard and later with John Corligano. We can chalk my ignorance up to having my head buried in the sand.
Interestingly, the compositions are performed by the Holland Bach Society. The orchestra plays according to the same style that it would if were performing its usual repertoire of music from the high-Baroque; vibrato is scant, there is a strong basso continuo (“Time to Dry” is even a chaconne!), and many of the longer notes feature some nice missa di voce. The orchestra’s dry, stark playing fits perfectly behind Teitur’s similarly thin voice, and it suits Muhly’s compositions pretty well. I’ll admit that, despite my early-music-snob credentials, I would never have thought that a baroque ensemble would suit contemporary composition and a pop singer so well.
All of the compositions, save “Sick of Fish” and “Dog and Frog,” include lyrics and vocals (which I can only assume are Teitur’s). In all, I think “Describe You,” “If You Wait a Little Longer,” “Cat Rescue,” and “Don’t I Know You From Somewhere” are the album’s strongest songs.
“Describe You” is the first track on Confessions. The lyrics make no attempt at a rhyming scheme or meter, which makes the song an interesting mix of rhythms and lyrical phrasing. To me, “Describe You’s” lyrics are a beautiful description of how hard it can be to put physical beauty into words. Read for yourself:
I was trying to describe you to someone. You don’t look like anyone I’ve seen before. I couldn’t say, “She looks just like Jane Fonda;” you don’t look like Jane Fonda at all.
I finally ended up describing you as a movie I saw when I was a child. I think I was seven, or eight, or six. It was a movie about rural electrification. The movie, it was about farmers living in the country without electricity. They didn’t have any appliances and they had to use lanterns. They put poles across the countryside, strung wires over fields and pastures. There was an incredible heroic dimension. The movie showed electricity like a young Greek god, coming to take away forever dark ways of life.
I was trying to describe you to someone. You don’t look like anyone I have seen before. I couldn’t say, “She looks just like Jane Fonda.” I couldn’t say, “Her mouth is a little different;” you don’t look Jane Fonda at all.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in poetry or literary art, but I think that is pretty imaginative and beautiful. To me, the idea of describing the woman as a “young Greek god” that will forever eradicate darkness seems absolutely original. Maybe I am wrong. 1
If You Wait A Little Longer
“If You Wait A Little Longer” is delivered (almost) one word at a time. The voice is accompanied, in unison, by a lute until the entire first phrase is completed. Not only are the lyrics revealed one word at a time, but Teitur repeats each word as he builds the phrase. It’s difficult to explain, but here is a transcription of the first line.
If. If you. If you wait. If you wait a. If you wait a little. If you wait a little longer. If you wait a little longer than. If you wait a little longer than you. If you wait a little longer than you normally. If wait a little longer than you normally would.
From here, Teitur continues this pattern, but doesn’t repeat the “If you wait” stuff. He simply picks up where that phrase left off (though he slips two words in instead of one a few times): “The most. The most amazing. The most amazing thing may. The most amazing thing may appear.”
Once we have made it through the whole sentence, we (finally!) get to hear the whole thing without interruption. Now, the song finally feels like it has started; the lute plays a steady accompaniment—with occasional harpsichord entrances—while Teitur slowly sings a new melody. After a few times around this new section, the song returns to the original melody along with the unison lute accompaniment, though he doesn’t drag us through that admittedly laborious (though very effective) delivery. Then, right at the end, we hear the next sentence: “Most likely, nothing will happen.” It’s almost as if the entire song is one big joke. Teitur makes us “wait a little longer” (over three minutes!) before he finally tells us what will happen if we wait.
The sense of anticipation this created is palpable. The first time I heard this song, I kept trying to figure out what was coming next. Those two times he sings two words instead of one throws our expectations for a bit of a loop, which adds just enough variety to keep it from being too predictable. Though the whole thing might come across as a bit cliché, it is also really effective. “If you wait a little longer than you normally would, the most amazing thing may appear. Most likely, nothing will happen.” And, the song ends on an unresolved dominant chord, bringing the whole “wait” thing full circle; keep waiting, and you’ll see that this thing goes nowhere. Clever.
I have never really thought that a song about a cat stuck in a tree could be cool, but, I have also never even thought someone would write a song about a cat stuck in a tree. Basically, this guy’s cat is stuck up in a tree, and no one seems to be able to get it to come down. “The fire department is no use,” he says, “and the tree people aren’t answering or calling [him] back.”
At first, Teitur’s voice is accompanied by three sustained chords; the voice waits until the third chord before it enters, then the orchestra holds the third one while he sings. After the first few times around, the orchestra takes off on its own, playing some repetitive rhythmic/harmonic figures. There are some playful textures between the violins, recorder, and lute. The second time the instrumental textures return, the mood is more somber. At one point we hear a solo violin lingering after the others have stopped. Eventually, the three chords from earlier come back, but there is an echoing idea from the bass and lute where the voice used to be.
Don’t I Know You From Somewhere
“Don’t I Know You From Somewhere” is the closest thing Confessions has to a traditional pop “single.” It is almost radio-friendly, with a catchy melody and singer-songwriter-esque structure and accompaniment.1
As we are used to by now, this song doesn’t even try to have an obvious rhyming scheme or metrical pattern; it’s just a bunch of sentences given to us mater-of-factly. This one is some sort of exploration of what it might be like to be a sushi roll:
If I were a sushi roll traversing through a Japanese kitchen, I would be mostly fascinated by the people there; their welcoming arms and their strange voices, their fingers flying around, immersed in conversation. I would like ask them a question: “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
They would be too busy to answer to me, too hungry and happy with their lives, busy soaking up the atmosphere of this restaurant, with pictures of slinky fish on the wall, the sharp sound of knives, and the smell of soy and ginger still in their nostrils. I would be in awe of their breath. I could hardly wait to be lifted into their mouths and get broken in two, and lie there melting somewhere between the sadness of their tongue and teeth. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
An odd metaphor, to be sure, but really cool in my opinion. The narrator is so lonely and helpless that he’ll take any interaction with the world, even if that means all of those interesting people end up eating him. Weird, but kind of cool, I think. This is emphasized by the song simply ending without notice. Teitur says, “Don’t I know you from somewhere,” just like before, and the song just ends ... Maybe he got eaten! :)
Though they are less great, “Small Spaces,” “I Smoke,” “Printer in the Morning,” and “Time to Dry” are all worth mentioning. “Small Spaces” is nothing but sustained chords with Teitur’s reverb-drenched voice singing about different rooms. “I Smoke” is a three-part composition with some surprises hiding in the accompaniment’s emphases. “Printer in the Morning” is a song about working in an office with an almost-continuous sixteenth-note part in the harpsichord; anytime someone could squeeze this line into a song is worth noting: “I love the smell of my printer in the morning. Forget ’bout coffee. Forget ’bout falling leaves or the smell of shampoo. It’s the smell of my printer in the morning that really makes my day.” As I mentioned earlier, “Time to Dry” is a textbook chaconne, as if straight out of Dido and Aeneas or Bach’s Musical Offering.
Confessions is certainly not most people’s “cup of tea.” It’s a weird combination of baroque-ish timbres and textures alongside Teitur’s untrained, thoroughly “poppy” voice. The lyrics are full-on prose, while being fully “poetic” in their descriptiveness. This is not an album to listen to in the car our on a run through the park, at least not the first few times around. So, find yourself forty-eight minutes that you can dedicate to listening on a nice-sounding sound system or through some good headphones and just listen.2 It’s a rewarding experience, and I think you’ll thank me one you’ve gone through it.
It turns out that this text is very closely based on a short story by Richard Brautigan. Actually, it’s almost an exact quote, so “based on” is the wrong word to use. Don’t worry: he got compositional credit. ↩︎
Isn’t it kind of sad that this is an admonition that I feel I have to make. I wish we (myself) would “just listen” a lot more. ↩︎