Maybe it’s something in the water: a coupleofyearsafter Northwestern troubadour Elliott Smith titles hisgreatEither/Or in honor of Soren Kierkegaard, Northwestern FOEs Quasi turn around and write their own Kierkegaard album. Fear and Trembling it ain’t, but Field Studies is still quite an achievement, not to mention the most explicitly existentialist indie album since, well, just about ever.
Quasi is Sam Coomes (formerly of Elliott Smith’s first band, Heatmiser) and ex-wife Janet Weiss (currently of Sleater-Kinney). Their last album, Featuring “Birds,” was an underground word-of-mouth success for obvious reasons: an ex-married couple of impeccable indie rock pedigree writing remarkably frank songs about their breakup!
Field Studies, perhaps sensing that there’s a fine line between exorcism and navel-gazing, immediately shoots for bigger game. “The future’s just like the past with a new coat of paint,” Coomes sings on the opener, “All the Same,” but he’s a master retoucher. “Birds” – 80 seconds of ornithological sounds, and a funny joke on the album named after it – is reprised as a full-on existential dilemma this time around: “Free as a bird/or is that just a word?/Oh, to be free/to free myself from me…”
Coomes’ musings would doubtless get tiresome, though, if he weren’t such a dead-on lyricist: next to no one works unadorned verse to more riveting effect. He can work formal flourishes into his writing without batting an eye (“Birds fighting in mid-air/and all the sky is theirs/Theirs: all of the sky…”); he turns idioms in on themselves to cutting effect (“I’m not going to give it up for free anymore/and I really don’t care if you label me a whore”).
The album’s songwriting apex, “A Fable with No Moral,” is as clever a song as has been written this year (which is saying a lot, what with 69 new Magnetic Fields tunes and a new Pavement album), wherein our hero Coomes tries to sell his soul “so I could pay my rent.” Satan rejects him, of course, which only emphasizes the fact that Coomes is the Anti-Morrissey, a writer so laconic he can make anything – even Kierkegaard – seem down-to-earth.
Of course, the easiest way to bring existentialism down to earth is to give it a beat, and there’s nobody better for the job than Weiss, one of the few drummers in the business who can make percussion simultaneously drive and skitter. Field Studies underutilizes her drumming, which creates a truly unusual effect: the uptempo numbers, by and large, are actually more rueful and introspective than the slower ones. Although Coomes is beginning to develop a real talent for atmosphere – “A Fable with No Moral” and “The Golden Egg” filter Pet Sounds through Built to Spill to majestic effect – he’s still most comfortable working with real percussive direction, as the delightfully skewed rhythm of “Birds” and the jaunty “Under a Cloud” prove.
Nevertheless, Field Studies’ fuller sound, featuring less of Coomes’ electronic harpsichord and more bass, guitar and strings, is a welcome addition, and when it coheres, as on the surging, fuzzy “All the Same” and the New Zealand-esque “The Skeleton,” the results are near-perfect. NEEDS ONE MORE SENTENCE, THE END.