Jen's Albums Of The Year 2018
1. Ursula K. Le Guin and Todd Barton — Music and Poetry of the Kesh
Hey, music lover. A lot of dope records came out in 2018. A lot of dope records come out every year. They make us thrash wildly, grin like children, cry-strut down the street, and shake our bum bums at inappropriate times (much love to all the patient souls who have tried asking me a question while a vibey song is playing in the store). Shout outs to all of that music. But I want to talk about an album that deeply altered my understanding of music’s purpose and penetrative power as a whole. As much as I have a tendency to respond viscerally to records I enjoy, it’s sometimes all I can manage to just sit and listen to this one in a contemplative stupor.
If you are familiar with Ursula K. Le Guin, you are probably accustomed to hearing her name invoked in the realm of literature. But she once made a record, too, and it’s every bit as transportive and visionary as you would imagine, birthed by such a badass prophetess of science-fiction. Not long after her passing in January of this year, the Freedom To Spend label made Music and Poetry of the Kesh available on vinyl for the first time. Originally released in the form of a cassette tape included in a special edition of her 1985 novel "Always Coming Home," the album was her and Todd Barton’s collaborative effort to create a sonic document of the fictional Kesh people, of which the book is essentially an imaginary anthropological study. At the risk of this recommendation degenerating into a book report, I’m going to leave the exposition at that, and simply say that the story surrounding this album’s conception is fascinating and absolutely worth reading about. I mostly want to tell you how it affected me so as to encourage you to seek your own experience with it.
Cautious as I want to be in attempting to describe the lush universe contained in this album (for I would only diminish it with words), I doubt I could ever say enough to express how palpably it spills over with life, and does so in a way that makes you feel truly inside of it, as though these recordings were somehow lifted from your own memory. It seems paradoxical, considering every aspect is fictionalized, including the language in which the songs and poetry are written. But when you hear the gentle, playful laughter in the voices of the Kesh as they harmonize with one another, backed by the inquisitive nature noises of their surroundings, you find yourself fully invested in their world with the same removed intimacy with which you might listen to an Alan Lomax field recording. Mysterious melodies and otherworldly instruments (some created for the purposes of this record) invite you to enter a time and place that, despite never having lived it, you feel is unquestionably alive somewhere in your being. And if you approach that place with an open heart — recognize its recognition of you, perhaps — you may experience something like the aural equivalent of a child running into its mother’s arms.
When we listen to music, I think we must on some level be searching for new layers of understanding to add to the realities we’ve constructed, as well as looking to enrich the parts of it that already exist. In other words: it’s world-building. Ursula K. Le Guin was a master of that. And Music and Poetry of the Kesh is, to me, profoundly symbolic of why music has been, is, and always will be an absolute necessity — not just as cultural artifact (fictional or not), but as an investigation into our present humanness. We listen actively. We invent meaning as we engage with the invented meanings of others. This album is more than mere evidence of a high caliber of musicianship — it is a direct offering to the reason underlying it all. My recommendation: put the record on as you go about your day, eating breakfast, cleaning, having a conversation with a friend. Imagine you are nourishing it as it nourishes you. Imagine that, when you listen to music that touches you, you are always coming home.