First impressions mean a lot. No one likes a floppy handshake.
Opening lines of a novel matter too. How many books have you not read because the story sets off blandly?
Albums are no different, and the opening song not only creates a statement for what’s to come but needs to grab the attention of the listener.
Led Zeppelin’s debut opened with “Black Dog”, Radiohead’s OK Computer dives straight in with “Airbag”, and The Smashing Pumpkins even opened with a drum roll on “Cherub Rock” for their album, Siamese Dream. Three masterpieces, three incredible openers.
Luckily, when it comes to “Layers” by Joel Ansett, the album opener is spot on. “Lost for Now” jumps right in with a piano that slowly dances from left to right, accompanied by percussive scratches and lyrics packed with questions.
Can you imagine the panic at the first sunset?
Down on your knees begging it not to go
Why would you warm up my heart and my skin?
Just to leave me alone in the end
The unknown. It’s probably our greatest fear as a race, and also the biggest source of life-enriching experiences. Starting an album with this bold question-creating imagery grabs the attention, and puts down a marker for what’s to come.
If you’re up for some introspection, you’d best buckle in.
That’s what this album is all about. Questions that can be applied to faith, relationships, our personal goals and anything that has a bit of existential flavor.
The chorus of “What If We Fall” – ironically and presumably intentionally missing a key piece of punctuation – is a list of questions.
What if we fall?
What if we try starting over?
What if our faults don’t keep us from getting closer?
What if we saw what it could be when we’re older?
What if we fall?
What if we fall back in love?
When you read or hear lyrics like this, there’s an assumption that it’s coming from the singer and it could well be that Ansett intended it that way. But that collective “we” does give us recourse to flip it around. What if it’s being sung by the other person in the relationship?
It might not change the chorus much, but as a possible mental flip, it enriches already meaningful verses.
My arm around your shoulder
I had a feeling I could hold you for the rest of my days
I quite like the idea of that being sung at the singer by a partner of a higher being.
That might be a bit of a complex view to take. Like when a modern art critic sees a baked bean smashed by a hammer and concludes it’s about industrialisation degrading traditional farming processes. But when an album throws up so many questions, you begin to pull apart everything.
Possibly while eating beans.
As I said, it’s one for introspection.
What is undeniably simple, is the songwriting itself.
Like I said in my review of the title track, Layers, there is honesty and openness about it. The scrape of the strings, the clickety-clack of the piano and the echoey reverb that goes with it all.
Songs like “Night Sky” dip into that post-rock linear style with little taste for sections. There’s a gradual increase in intensity, with layers and textures being added one by one to compliment the main melody.
You’re gently carried to a climax and then given a moment or two to reflect. Every song has a little journey.
It’s an album of builders with no “album tracks”. An all-killer-no-filler affair where every part is essential.
It’s a maelstrom of layers that create calm. As Graeme Wey said in his review for “Pull”, this album invites you to take a step back from the hustle and bustle and go slow. It wants you to be honest and go to places that might be uncomfortable.
I hear us talking around the words we ought to say
We’re probably all guilty of that at some time or another.
But where does all this brooding on the greater complexities of life leave us?
Well, just as an album opener is important, its closing statement matters too.
Marvin Gaye finished the album “What’s Going On” with “Inner City Blues”. A song about the hardship endured by the mainly black inhabitants of inner-city America. There’s no resolution on offer.
And Ansett pulls from the same deck with “Already”.
I’ll be writing a sad song
My baby daughter starts dancing
I think she knows what music is for
And I know I’m missing something
All of us missing something
After all that we’ve been through in this album, we’re still short of something, and we don’t even know what it is.
And I think that’s the point. You can’t know it all, you can’t have all the answers.
In “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” the best-selling self-help guide, Mark Manson talks of realizing that sometimes things are a bit crap. It’s about learning why they are that way, and what we can do to change it.
Sometimes you can’t do anything about it, and sometimes you will never know what’s the matter at all.
And I think that’s where the brooding leaves us. Acceptance of our issues, acceptance of the complexities of our relationship and acceptance of the fact we can’t always control what’s happening to us.
Layers is an album that goes deep into big questions and wants you to do the same. The hushed vocals and instrumentation give us the time and space to look inwards, to improve our outward perspective on life.
It’s an album you should commit to and an album that will leave you pondering, well everything.