For someone whose music has earned so much praise by way of its nebulous and elliptical qualities, Matthew Cooper—who has recorded as Eluvium since 2003—deserves a nod for the definite, deliberate shift of his latest album, Similes.
Not only is Similes the first Eluvium record to feature lyrics and singing but also, despite its gauze of submersed piano, stretched synthesizer and bleary guitar, the bulk of Simile's eight tracks are rather comfortable pop songs. With discrete progressions, melodies and meters, Similes allows you simply to sing along.
For the last seven years, Cooper used Eluvium to explore and mix the legacies of ambient pioneers like Erik Satie and Brian Eno, minimalist welterweights like John Adams and Rhys Chatham, and more recent electronicists like Autechre and Gas. His music has been unequivocally and unapologetically pretty, even when it hinted at clangorous post-rock, as on 2006's When I Live by the Garden and the Sea.
That EP mixed heavy piano and uncharacteristically snarling electronics to threaten some apocalyptic quake. But it was only a threat: Cooper's music has always curbed the corners and diminished the crescendos, emphasizing atmosphere over tension or resolution. For instance, "Taken," the 17-minute marching drifter from 2005's Talk Amongst the Trees, let its guitar chords fall like raindrops from clouds of drone. It never got loud, unlike Chatham or his collaborator of long ago, Glenn Branca. "Requiem for Frankfort Ave.," from 2008's horn-and-string-heavy soundtrack-in-waiting, Copia, emanated the same still glow as Philip Glass' Glassworks. But it was a more hesitant beauty, careful not to test its audience. The next track, "Radio Ballet," worked through a theme with a tenderness and cheerfulness that suggested Claude Debussy on a mission to lift spirits.
The most intriguing question about Cooper, then, remains how he's gotten so popular, especially considering that this is his first album with vocals and song structures more familiar to the general listener. The composers above are by no means obscure, especially in their respective fields, but Eluvium is, as independent music goes, a pretty big deal. He's touring relatively large rooms—in Carrboro, he'll play Cat's Cradle; three days later, in New York, he'll play the same adventurous Manhattan club in which Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum returned to the stage last week, Le Poisson Rouge. More telling, though, is that last year, Temporary Residence Limited, the label he's always called home, quickly sold through 1,000 box sets that included his entire discography on seven pieces of wax—for about $150 a pop.
But why? Plenty of people make qualitatively pretty music employing many of those same references, but it's hard to believe that Polish electronic whiz Jacaszek or even a more popular name, like Canadian sound artist Tim Hecker, would play the biggest rock club in many towns. The answer seems to be a marriage of Cooper's generally circumscribed approach as a composer—if he's ever gone to an extreme, it's an extreme of moderation—and the indie rock culture in which it emerged. Cooper no doubt enjoyed the newfound interest of the indie rock hoi polloi in instrumental music that followed the success of label mates Explosions in the Sky, Mono and Envy, though their melodramatic music sits far afield from his serene sway. As grouchy as it sounds, Cooper makes music inspired by classical, minimal and electronic giants for listeners who don't know any better than to interpret it as innovation.
This thing that's long been called indie rock—or independent music, at least—behaves more and more like the borders of a suburb, annexing any territory that seems interesting. Whether it's ragged garage rock bluster or icy electronic drone, spectral folk drift or relentless hip-hop charge, it's all part of the domain for your average Pitchfork or Tiny Mix Tapes reader—or writer. Even Taylor Swift and Ne-Yo get their dues or disses in these circles.
The real experts appear relegated to specialty online ghettos that are so far out of the Internet's meme-o-sphere that they rarely enter these conversations. For instance, Kyle Gann, who served as a music critic at the Village Voice between 1986 and 2005, maintains an excellent blog—"PostClassic: Kyle Gann on Music After the Fact..."—at the daily arts Web rag, Arts Journal. Judging by his comments section, its readership appears, at best, sparse. Rather, heavy metal writers tweet about their favorite rappers, and everyone's got an analysis of Justin Bieber at the ready. Such an environment of comingling tastes, where everyone knows a little about everything and creates what's essentially a mass of dilettantes, favors the advancement of someone like Cooper. You're less likely to scorn an Arvo Prt nod or condemn a progression better suited for a car commercial if classical music isn't your main game. You'll simply float on.
As for Similes, it's the most sonically interesting album Eluvium has made to date, filled with barely sinister electronics and pulses. Lyrically, though, he does the same thing he's long done as a composer: use big devices to say mostly nothing. "Shapes are for looking at," he sings at one point. Uhh, thanks?
This isn't to say you shouldn't listen to Eluvium. Suggesting that someone stop listening to or writing about music unless they're able to gab about its history is dreadfully territorial and the province, I think, of a listening Luddite. The boundaries between genres don't seem like they're going to be fortified anytime soon. Electronic composers and Ryan Adams alike are jacking black metal aesthetics, and Joanna Newsom is working with The Roots.
The point, then, is one of introducing hyperbole to reality: If Eluvium made the most progressively minded classical or electronic record you heard this year, it's OK to admit that you didn't hear very many classical or electronic records this year. And, who knows, maybe Cooper serves as a gateway for someone's exploration of early tape music or ECM's archives. But even if he's more popular then many of his peers and is leading the way into bigger rooms, Eluvium's Matthew Cooper has never—not once—been out front as a composer. Rather, he's been safely in the middle, living by the garden and the sea, mixing forms to make what's best described as musical wallpaper. And wallpaper gets paid to play nice.