More than should probably be normal, I think about a scenario when humans are long gone and AIs are roaming the earth (in whatever form “AI” as a very general term will inevitably take), scouring our wreckage and analyzing all the art us humans made. I wonder what they’ll discard or keep, what will interest them (inasmuch as they could be interested in anything at all) and what single musical album or film or painting perfectly encapsulated humanity’s fateful last moments.
I have a very visceral memory listening to How to Dress Well’s album The Anteroom for the first time. And before I even got to the track Vacant Boat, I was thinking about that AI scenario, convinced that this was the album for the AIs to try to understand humanity. So it was an eerie and somewhat transcendent moment when I got to this line from Vacant Boat:
Bury me in a quiet place where no one else can see
What my rotting flesh might accomplish once it’s released its energy
Or mount me in the middle of the living room entombed in a glass case
So the AIs that outlive us will look on puzzled and dismayed
The album has been out since October of last year and I’m still not over it (if you missed my Top 10 Albums of 2018, this was #1). So many lines have stuck with me since then but this AI line, to me, sums up what makes this album special – that is, the way Tom Krell has captured the anxiety brought on by progressing technology and all its social, mental and ecological ramifications. The song title itself is a punch to the gut of modern living – comparing the earth to a vacant boat, then wondering who will “index the reeking foam”. And the verse above perfectly describes the two sides (at least that I’ve experienced) of social media – either feeling buried and unseen or naked on display in a glass case. The interlude track False Skull 7 feels like a tweet sent unliked, unretweeted and unseen into the void – a single line saying “Today was awful” lost within a crackling, distressed atmosphere of sound.
The entire album sounds like the soundtrack to a philosophical sci-fi novel. It’s intricate, textural, at times either icy or scalding, and sometimes tender, often abrasive. The ambient soundscapes and distant, weeping vocals illustrate a modern, social isolation, making me feel like I’m drowning in cyberspace, wondering if everyone or no one can see me. The sporadic and fragmented cuts and glitches unnerve me in the way articles about the future of bio- and nanotechnology do. And the lyrics (it feels wrong to say “lyrics” because this album feels more like one cohesive poem set to music) are visceral, unsettling, stunning and compelling in the same way the pure potential of humanity and technology is – and vague enough that the future, although bleak, is still hopeful. Taking this album in feels like I’m staring down from some cosmic perspective watching earth slowly spin towards its annihilation or some corrupted stage of evolution, praying that someone down below can either stop this inevitability or artistically capture all that’s beautiful about humanity before everything is lost.
If that’s what Tom Krell was going for here, he may just be the one of the greatest artists of our time. Or maybe I’m just reaching.
But lines like “Nothing on this side was built for you” have so many angles I can’t help but see one of them being directed to the AIs in their post-apocalyptic society while they look on puzzled and dismayed. And “Like jumping off a cliff, but never falling” describes the unsettling stasis of modern technology – the sense of humanity collectively taking a breath during the calm before a storm. And then there’s one of the less subtle lines from Nonkilling 3 | The Anteroom | False Skull 1, “What we used to call a job is now handled by machines, you can die in peace,” which is a very OK Computer way to illustrate automated anxiety.
Annihilation as an inevitability, or desecration, are common themes throughout. Taken on a literal level, there’s a desecration of sound through warped vocals, glitches and uneasy ambience. There are lyrics about broken skulls, suffocation, oceans of blood, rotting and decay, bones bleached by light, and even the recurring phrase, “Nothing left to desecrate.” Is this end of desecration a victory or a failure? In the ecological and technological sense, what could possibly constitute an eventual victory? (Or, as Krell asks, “What altar could we possibly heal upon?“)
This sense of uneasy finality is echoed in the final – and hardest hitting – line from the album: “I could see you there like the child wishing the ambulance was for them.” And of course in the album’s title, The Anteroom – a small room, usually a sitting or waiting room that leads to another, larger, much more important room.
Will another ambulance come to take us to the next room? If we die here, will we be buried or put on display in a glass case? Is the next room the side that was built for us or for the AIs? How much will be desecrated?
Or is there even a next room at all?