The descent into being: a review of Adrianne Lenker’s “abysskiss”

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Rating: 8.5/10

Whenever you dig into a wholly personal piece of work, there is a sense of isolation that clouds over the whole experience. If you’re truly listening then you can feel the inwardness seep into your bones, the musical universe slipping into an unavoidable solipsism moment after moment as the songwriter works inward. You realize there are solo albums, then there are solitary albums. Solo albums can often still be a band effort, expressing feelings of shared creativity and hard-earned collaboration built on strong relationships and a sense of trust. Some solo efforts, though, are pervaded by the musings of the solitary soul, and as listeners we are invited to participate in that experience that is both frightening and sacred.

“abysskiss” is such an album. Adrianne Lenker’s most recent solo effort sinks down into the depths of being, i.e. the abyss, and uses its landscape to siphon out stories from the innermost parts of herself. She does this with spare arpeggios on her acoustic guitar and other minimal splashes of instrumentation, which, though hinting at the possibility of other players in the room with her, don’t take away from the isolated feeling of the songs.

As is the danger with every solitary effort, each human is tempted with the veil of solipsism, or the view and theory that only the self can be known to exist. On the other side of this philosophy is monism, the belief that denies the existence of any distinction or duality exists in our lives, thus making the singular experience of one human being all just part of the existence of one big mind, or as some call it, God. The spiritual seeker – Lenker in this case – aims to rectify their heart with the world outside even as they turn inward and descend into the darkness of being an individual and separated soul.

What’s frightening is how well Lenker’s trembling voice fits this palette. Though in the past she’s created luxurious arrangements with her stellar band Big Thief, she sounds equally comfortable with spare arrangements and hushed, restrained compositions that wallow in silence as much as in the lyrics, which summon death as it if was as integral a part of the natural imagery as the trees. “See my death become a trail / And the trail leads to a flower / I will blossom in your sail / Every dream in waking hours.”

Like a quiet day where your physical surroundings seem to be an echo of your internal landscape, the music paints trails that lead back to the singer, and, as she disappears into the fold created by her lyrics, toward the listener who absorbs the music. The restrained piano chords and vibrating ambience that appear behind the guitar, instead of broadening the horizon of the songs, only lead toward more isolation, which must be explored in order to truly understand the “other.”

Some thinkers contend that there are both. There is both duality and singularities, isolation and communion. An experience of transcendent connection with the world does not exclude our individual experience but affirms it, as Adrianne seems to say on “symbol,” where she explores the cycle of time and its relationship with love.

“Do you see circling through? / That’s how one, returns from two.” Lenker muses at the end of the chorus in “symbol.” The trance-like melody of the song and Lenker’s obscure lyrics grant the song a sense of symbolic searching, where each relationship – person to person, person to landscape, person to time – seems to mirror and inform each other, even if it’s all imagined inside of one isolated consciousness separate from the rest.

These solitary sort of albums, when coming from exceptional songwriters, can connect with those lonely moments in all our lives and provide a solace that is both emotionally raw and life-affirming. I think to Paul Buchanan’s stunning 2012 album “Mid Air,” which conceptually exists in those sleepless hours in the middle of the night, when we question our life decisions and reconcile what we have loved and lost during that time. Lenker’s album, on the other hand, exists in some foggy nature walk, where the circle of life and death that nature represents twist and turn inside of our own minds.

More Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” than anything else, “abysskiss” thrives inside of its personal mythology, which requires the listener to penetrate its labyrinth of meanings for themselves.

Fittingly, Lenker’s most expansive song is called “out of your mind,” where for the first time it seems like other people could be present in the room. It’s message to “Get out of your mind / And into my arms” strengthens that feeling, like an invitation to finally escape this soul-searching solitude and embrace communion with other people.

The album’s last song, “10 miles,” finds Lenker’s singing at its most hushed and yearning. “You’re closing up the bar / I’m warming up the car / 10 miles away.” The subtle imagery mirrors the instrumentals, which float over a warm, yet quiet, ambience. These spectral sounds appear underneath the guitar throughout the song then grow steadily towards the song’s end. “To die in your arms” she sings, “Your words forming again.”

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