Escaping into Sound (of Ceres)
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the way people approach music, and what exactly they look to get out of their engagement. My hunch is that many people turn to music as a form of escapism. The ostentatious displays of wealth, power, and sexual allure built into decades of popular music supports this theory; everyone kind of wants to be Drake or Beyoncé, or at least bask in their glow if only for an intoxicating moment. The absurd power of music is that, through the mere manipulation of air vibrations, we can be taken there; we can become the brooding Drake, driving through the six with our woes (in a car more expensive than our own, probably).
On the other side of the spectrum, I often find myself approaching music as a form of intellectual engagement—some sort of cerebral pleasure, something interesting to think about, talk about, write about, compare with other things—not unlike how one might approach literature. This is why concept albums, dense lyricism, and unheard-of genre mixtures are so exciting to me. I feel giddy trying to examine their many surfaces.
Let me say right off the bat that I don’t think approaching music as escapism is any less valid than approaching it as an intellectual and cultural curio. And I don’t like breaking such amorphous and complex things down into simple binaries. But I do see these two strains in tension with each other, like two sides of the same coin: either you try and wrap your brain around a piece of music, or it wraps itself around you.
Following this slapdash theory, I think the most powerful music is able to exist in both spheres: music that is both engaging in its structural complexities and cultural echoes, and that can be escaped into as a small universe in and of itself. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy does this for me but Yeezus does not. Dan Deacon’s Bromst does this, but Spiderman of the Rings and America do not. These values are highly subjective and arbitrary, but if nothing it’s a fun little thought-game to play.
Now I can safely add another album to that shortlist: Sound of Ceres’ Nostalgia for Infinity.
Sound of Ceres is an outgrowth of the Colorado-based band Candy Claws, and includes Rob Schneider (not that Rob Schneider) from Apples in Stereo and Jacob Graham of the Drums. For me, these three great bands coming together is indeed the very definition of a supergroup, but it feels weird to apply that term to any band that doesn’t include someone like Eric Clapton.
Candy Claws has a penchant for the kind of paradoxical transportive music I was describing. On one hand, they often construct their albums with distinctly literary conceits: In the Dream of the Sea Life was a musical companion to the poetic textbook The Sea Around Us by biologist Rachel L. Carson; the lyrics to Hidden Lands were composed by running Richard M. Ketchum’s 1970 book The Secret Life of the Forest back-and-forth through a translation program; Ceres and Calypso in the Deep Time tells the story of “Ceres, a seal-like beast, and Calypso, her human partner, as they travel through the Mesozoic Era,” with each member’s vocals giving voice to different characters, one of them being an entity named Deep Time.
On the level of pure escapism, they also happen to make really lush and compelling music, blending 70s lounge, surf, twee, space age pop, and shoegaze into a psychedelic wormhole. Ceres and Calypso in the Deep Time is the apex of this approach and one of my favorite albums. It’s a beautiful, tuneful, and profoundly mysterious album that feels like exploring a prehistoric jungle. It’s fucking amazing.
Nostalgia for Infinity is their first album as Sound of Ceres, and it follows and deepens Candy Claws’ previous pattern. According to the liner notes, the album “works on five levels” which it also calls “orbits.” The overall album synopsis is best quoted at length:
Nostalgia for Infinity is an album-length retelling of the song “The Girl from Ipanema,” replacing the girl with a spinning antiprism, and the unrequited longing with an existential shout into the expanding universe. The album also explores the parallel between “The Girl…” and Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, in which he describes “a world beyond us but within our understanding.”
The five orbits appear to be methods of interpretation prescribed by the band. I’ve outlined them below:
- The first orbit is simply appreciation of the music as such, without knowledge of the deeper textual modalities: “This is a concept album, but one that’s hopefully enjoyable and complete without any awareness of the fact.”
- The second orbit posits the album as a retelling of “The Girl from Ipanema”, wherein the girl passing in front of the beach-lounging narrator stimulates an examination on the locus of reality (“Does the event happen out there, on our right, or in our eyes which perceive the movement, or in our mind which receives the signals from the eyes?”).
- The third orbit brings in another text: a page of endnotes from a short story published in an out-of-print science fiction anthology entitled Solar Mirror Anthology. The convoluted short story is about a “Solar Visitor” who battles a leviathan and eventually crosses paths with the Girl from the second orbit, and then goes into a cave and becomes an obsidian antiprism. Or something. As far as I can tell this entire layer is a fictional invention by the band. I can find no evidence of an actual Solar Mirror Anthology online, apart from a song by Sound of Ceres entitled “Solar Mirror Anthology Vol. 6” released through Flannelgraph Records as a digital single. The song itself sounds conspicuously like “The Girl from Ipanema.”
- The fourth orbit is something like a negative-text or an anti-text. It’s “a placeholder for any current and relevant cosmological ideas.” Basically, an empty space of an interpretation that is to be filled with whatever science’s current understanding of the universe and outer space is.
- The fifth orbit brings in the final text, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the French autofictional epic about memory, internal mental processes, and music (many scholars have noted how the novel’s structure reflects a cyclical sonata form). The particular theme that this orbit is engaged with is Proust’s idea of “a world beyond us but within our understanding.” In other words, the abstract longing for the impossible, be it the unreachable world of memory, or the totality of the universe that we can only understand from our own limited consciousness.
When faced with multi-layered complexity like this, there’s a natural inclination to throw your hands up in despair and call bullshit on the whole operation. It’s all postmodern fakery, right? Loopy academic rabbit holes that lead to nothing meaningful, or some sly wink at overwrought artistic criticism. There’s no stable center of meaning to this album, because the album reflects “The Girl from Ipanema” and Proust’s musical novel and some hypothetical science fiction story and nature, all of which in turn are reflecting or linking to one another in an endless chain of signification. It’s enough to make your head spin.
Here’s where I pop in to say, “Exactly.” Remember the Proust quote: we’re dealing with an album about the world that exists beyond but within our understanding. In other words, simultaneously something that we can and can’t wrap our brains around. Something that we intuitively understand and are able to examine, and yet always eludes our limited viewpoint.
And here we arrive at what I was driving at earlier: music as both a universe we can dwell in, and as a reified artistic piece that we keep at arm’s length. Except here, the universe we are asked to inhabit is this scaffolding of shifting texts and language, which are the very things we use to intellectually probe our universe. It doubles back on itself.
At the risk of sounding too meta, Nostalgia for Infinity is a piece of art about art. It’s an album about the way in which all texts—all art and nature—interlock and echo each other ad infinitum, thereby constructing the universe as we understand it. There’s no center of stable meaning in this album because there’s no center of stable meaning anywhere. Just reflections of reflections of reflections in an endless semantic chain.
Heady stuff indeed. Yet, when you immerse yourself in the album with these orbits in mind, certain things start to open up. For one thing, the pliability of their poetic lyricism becomes clear. Each song’s lyrics can be nudged into the different interpretations, be it their weird retelling of “The Girl from Ipanema,” vague philosophical musings in the direction of Proust, the made up story about the sun visitor fighting a demon, the actual physical laws of celestial objects, and as poems in themselves.
They also work simply as an engrossing set of songs, employing layers of spaced-out synths and moody melodies while toning down their usual genre fixations of lounge, pop, and ambient soundscapes. It’s an exhilarating listen, from the unfurling petals of “Bryn Marina” to the dimly-lit and cataclysmic “Dagger Only Run,” and I’m frequently amazed at how deftly this album draws me in and puts me in a strange and contemplative headspace.
It’s hard not to see this as the logical endpoint of their earlier literary-style experimentation. Instead of borrowing texts, or morphing them, or accompanying them, or building their own fictional narratives, Sound of Ceres throws everything in the blender and then gives us the list of ingredients. You can spend all day trying to pick out the various flavors, or you can just enjoy the resulting concoction as-is. Or you can do both.