Island life is fuckin’ tight. There are no goddamn computers, feral children run naked through the woods, and everyone eats unidentifiable foodstuff from a giant clawfoot tub in an abandoned plot.
‘kay, that’s not totally true, but the difference between life on Portland and its peripheral islands is stark. And as anyone smart enough to know knows, once the shittiness and banality of city life piles up (it does), that once-innocent escape feels like a world you never want to leave.
And the thing about The Protecting Cloak, the new full-length by Peaks Island-dwelling experimental musician Jared Fairfield, is that once you begin to listen, you never cease to want to listen. It’s like the other night in that hot tub when a dude showed me his tattoo of an Ouroboros running up and down his thigh. Fairfield’s gorgeous album swallows its tail and breathes again, and over the course of its 14 songs and 33 minutes, you forget where it begins or ends. Or if it ever began or ended at all.
Those who’ve kept their ears real low to the ground surely remember Fairfield as the recording artist he was many years back, when his bright-sounding, falsetto-laden psych-folk would surface on the L’Animaux Tryst label among other astral planes. What differs at this point — even from 2015’s Worldless, a more straightforward (by his standards) pop record — is Fairfield’s commitment to pure woozy ambience, a decommissioning of the folkisms of his own musical past. Released on Portland label Pretty Purgatory, Worldless was similarly drenched in hazy synths and twinkling effects, but the album still seemed firmly rooted in the vocabulary and atmosphere of folk psychedelia. Put another way, it still seemed like it belonged to the world. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the way The Protecting Cloak strips away the tired appurtenances of the form, embracing a pure ethereal formlessness in their wake, it feels so liberating — sexy, even — to get away from it. It’s as if the transcendence Fairfield was seeking finally occurred.
As a result, the world he creates here is wistful and vulnerable, yet nothing is unpleasant. Fragmented slide guitar patterns construct the arc of “Drifted Night,” as Fairfield’s autotuned vocals gleam in the fore. Those enthused by the more recent murky post-folk deconstructions of Justin Vernon could enjoy what’s happening here, but so would noiseniks who get off on the nostalgic aural playgrounds of Grouper, Philip Jeck, Dedekind Cut or The Caretaker. He folds vaguely rainforesty timbres into a supremely chill palette for “The Gift Giver”’s patient interstitial dub. The stereo synth waves of album-best “Voice in the Water” blurs toy sounds and nocturnal textures with a yearningyet-indecipherable autotune refrain. Only the title track, with its muted slide-guitar-ish synth and twinkling carousel melodies, contains wisps of the folk world he’s left behind.
I’m cheating a bit here, because I saw Fairfield perform recently, and even though I was sober(ish), it transported me. What the dude played (dudes, actually — he’s taken to collaborating live with fellow keyboard player James Marcel) was a heady set of vocal-heavy, post-ironic (that is, unironic) R&B-inspired tracks that were drippingly lovely to witness. This album isn’t that, but the spirit and vibes are all there, and it seems like a necessary stepping stone to that world. And a reminder that the one we’re presently in isn’t always as worth writing about.
The Protecting Cloak | By Jared Fairfield | cassette & digital | Released by Wilt.Press | www.wilt.press
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