Broken Spindles – Inside/Absent

Broken Spindles

The fine line between drama and melodrama is a simple, yet notoriously difficult path to tread. A keen sense of subtlety is required for any given work to communicate effectively; without it, the piece faces the ever-looming danger of turning into a facile parody of its subject matter, bereft of any real weight or meaning. We have seen this scenario play out countless times in movies, books, and television; think of all the Hallmark Special made-for-TV movies of the week, the blatant emotional manipulation practiced by the Schulmachers of the Hollywood graveyard, or the bludgeoning, ham-fisted protagonists populating the latest-and-greatest pulp wastelands, pedaled upon the unsuspecting populace by paperback grifters and one-trick fashion victims.

Melodrama presents itself a bit differently in music: the over-exaggerated emotions, ludicrously heightened sense of tension, and humdrum stock characters are replaced by banal structures, predictable chord progressions, and bad teen-goth poetry. The strings swell, and we expect a rousing, from-the-heart chorus; the piano plonks down a descending scale in a Dorian mode, and we know the song is supposed to be sad; singers spout pseudo-existential lines about being all alone, and we stifle a giggle. In fact, it would be safe to say that melodrama is much more pervasive in popular music than in any other art form, and I suppose that it shouldn’t be too surprising; after all, the pop cultural radar is powered almost exclusively by the urgency and immediacy of youth, capitalizing on the egotism of the 16-25 consumer set.

That being said, it’s certainly possible to write great music within the confines of the melodramatic; for example, no one could deny that Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral are incredibly catchy and well-written pop albums, even if one does find Reznor’s lyrics to be juvenile and self-absorbed. Similarly, hundreds of otherwise jejune “emo” bands resonate with their respective audiences through sheer conviction alone, despite recycling the same-old riffs and chord progressions ad nauseum.

Unfortunately, the same things could not be attributed to Broken Spindles (a side-project for the Faint’s Joel Peterson) and its new release Inside/Absent. The audience is ostensibly supposed to feel alienation, anger, and confusion; the somewhat darkwavish textures, mournful lyrics, and repeated use of vaguely threatening minor scales makes this obvious enough. But we’re smarter than that, and the attempt feels heavy-handed and, well, melodramatic. There is no subtlety here, and lyrics like “It’s hard for people to get close to you / When you’re so distant” don’t sound like an affecting attempt at communicating miscommunication more so than they sound silly and infantile.

The album itself is a dreadfully dreary exercise in tedium, its decidedly lo-fi attempts at new-wavish electro-pop sounding both tired and trite. There are no real hooks to latch on to, no real innovative soundscaping and textural explorations, and Peterson’s monotone, detached vocals eventually begin to grate on the nerves. The fact that he’s spewing puerile lines like “I’m wasting away / I’m being erased / It’s my birthday / But I feel the same” makes his bored lilt even more intolerable, and it’s a minor blessing that his vocals are drenched in enough reverb to make many of his lyrics nearly incomprehensible.

The biggest problem lies in how bland the actual recording is. The songs never veer from the standard 4/4 pop formula, and the melodies aren’t catchy enough to hold water by themselves. Furthermore, the backing tracks are hackneyed and uninspired, often sounding like old 8-bit Nintendo tunes. The tones and textures used are clichéd and uninventive; I’m utterly convinced that there is nothing on this album that could not be replicated by a bored teenager armed with a keyboard and a copy of Garage Band.

I suppose I am being so critical partly because of the sense of self-importance that Inside/Absent conveys; it’s as if Peterson wants us to realize that he’s making ART!, from the austere polygon figures adorning the cover to its decidedly pretentious title. Take, for example, the opening track: a meandering piano figure that sounds childish and amateur in its attempts to be abstract, it lasts for nearly three minutes, and then repeats itself twice more (in one form or another) on the album. Remember Nicole Kidman plinking that one note over and over again in Eyes Wide Shut? Now imagine that scene extended to two minutes and 40 seconds and given a title. Yes folks, this is ART, done with no formalist training and having no real merit.

The album wants to be taken seriously, it really does; however, the poor lyrics and mediocre production transforms all of its forced menace and dark tendencies into laughable sentiments. This is melodrama with no redemption, finding no traction as either a pop album or an ambient experiment. In an ideal world, Inside/Absent would be a brilliantly subtle parody of all the morose bedroom audio diarists and bad new-wave popsters or an incisive bit of commentary on why abstraction in music does not work without having some formal training; however, the world is less than ideal, and Peterson is all too serious.