Is it copacetic to ask someone to create something from nothing for a second time—in one lifetime, in one career, in just more than a decade, no less?
That's the predicament of Nick Zammuto, formerly one half of the mystifying and mesmerizing electronica duo The Books. In the two years since The Books split their spine, Zammuto has issued a pair of solo albums that not only break from his past but also make you miss it. He once did something so distinct that everything he might ever make, including the new Anchor, could seem conventional by comparison. In retrospect, that's been true from the start.
More than a decade after its release, The Books' Thought for Food remains an especially peculiar and poignant debut. The music Zammuto and Paul de Jong made was manipulated, disjointed and cut-up, but it drew from an instrumental palette so doggedly warm that it barely scanned as electronic at all. Here was the lame old acoustic guitar—paired with square pals banjo and cello—liberated from coffee-house confines and given a strange electricity. In the wake of a half-decade dominated by IDM's robotic glitches, The Books made electronic music that emanated warmth like a quietly crackling fireplace.
The band's use of vocal samples eschewed the strident mantras and readymade hooks of house and hip-hop. The Books were content to let an old lady ramble circuitously about an unspecified calamity. They used the texture of the voice without imparting lyrical information, an approach that's moved from the academic fringes of electronic music to the more popular strains in the decade since The Books tried it. Thought for Food may be one of the very few albums that justifies the ever-awkward "folktronica" tag.
The Books' 2003 follow-up, The Lemon of Pink, used the same aesthetic to a slightly less beguiling end. That set incorporated samples too cosmopolitan to fit Thought for Food's Cubist back-porch portrait: a Japanese airline's in-flight announcement, splinters of jazz and classical, jumbled noises from non-English speakers.
Though its only real precedent seemed to be the album they'd made the previous year, the follow-up's most significant distinction—and the one that now seems especially predictive—is the increase in live vocals. Singer Anne Doerner added memorable contributions in quick appearances; less prominent but more significant, though, were the first signs of Zammuto's ambitions as a vocalist. He added background vocals, and The Books' mask of mystery started to slip.
On 2005's Lost and Safe, Zammuto peeled off the mask for entire songs at a time, often doubling the signature vocal samples with hushed harmonies. The new approach suggested a deeper link between sound manipulator and source material while forcing the songs into more traditional pop shapes—more Postal Service than the mutant Negativland of Appalachia. The shift suggested how an academic project might turn into a viable touring band.But now it just seems like the beginning of the end.
Five years passed before the arrival of The Way Out, a couples-therapy retreat of a record that couldn't save Zammuto and de Jong's creative marriage.They backed away from the blanketing vocals of Lost and Safe, and as if by pre-arranged compromise, returned to the sample-dominant sound of the first two records. It all felt superficial. The pair tightened the range of samples to focus on snippets from self-help recordings; the move seemed like an artificial thematic imposition, a conversation starter to get through a long car ride.
Those clips made the record a bit funny and easy to parse, blunting the gentle disorientation of their early work. The current London group Public Service Broadcasting, one of the very few acts to feel like a true disciple of The Books' sound, used a similarly narrow conceit on last year's Inform - Educate - Entertain, only sampling old-timey public information films and propaganda. Like The Way Out, it's clever and enjoyable. But it was also far too easy to scan quickly and convince yourself that you had the gist.There was very little thought for food.
Zammuto didn't hide his disappointment when The Books finally ended in 2012. "It's been an extraordinarily painful year coming to the realization that there was no way forward for the band," he told Pitchfork. You can hear that on his self-titled debut, too, which sounds like the work of an artist recoiling from a well-established aesthetic he was still too raw to revisit. He's since described making the record as "fraught," "disjointed," and above all, "lonely."
The subtle strumming of The Books' cut-ups yielded to chunky synths. The sounds weren't futuristic, but in the context of a career spent reimagining old sounds, the switch seemed like an unready rush toward modernism. And where The Books' albums flowed in somewhat formless fashion, Zammuto's solo work was a rigid set of song-to-song genre exercises, switching between funk and Afrobeat. Zammuto, once a worshipper of the human voice's inherent musicality, now seemed eager to obscure it, swaddling his own tone with AutoTune and fuzz.
At least Anchor, Zammuto's second record, suggests he might be comfortable fully embracing his natural singing voice—his music's least-appreciated aspect all along—as a key component of his work. In one way, the material seems like the logical next step to Lost and Safe, delayed by 10 years of interpersonal creative strife. Though the collage framework that once held up Books records has vanished, you can now hear Zammuto directly. He's no longer singing only to duet with some disembodied ghost. He's just singing.
The eclectic impulses of Zammuto's solo debut stretch further still on Anchor; for the first time, his songwriting even resembles traditional pop/rock. Single "IO" approximates punchy New Wave, and the lingering female vocals on "Hegemony" suggest familiarity with the recent rise of indie R&B. The record offers the most "normal" Zammuto songs to date.
This, of course, may spur contradictory feelings for long-time fans. It's only natural to pine for the the originality that made Thought for Food such an unexpected, enduring standard. But his old way of working wouldn't surprise anyone anymore anyway, not in 2014. That's the trouble with creating a sound that seemed sui generis a decade ago: Do you keep aping it, or do you aim for a new interpretation of your own impulses, even if they'll fool no one?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Solitary consignment"