11 Nov 2013 — Henning Lahmann
When it comes to names for musical ventures, Cuddle Formation – Los Angeles native Noah Klein’s guise ever since discarding his former project Philip Seymour Hoffman – is as harmless and reassuring as it gets. The artist’s latest release, a fifteen-minute side on a split tape with Dan Goldberg aka The Spookfish named Earthbound, appears to confirm all images of withdrawn coziness his nom de plume might evoke. Starting with the fittingly entitled “Dreamhaus”, the music quickly evolves into a calming maelstrom of unobtrusive drones and layered, reverberating vocal tracks that instantly creates an atmosphere of peaceful introspection. The tone is kept up for the entirety of the four tracks; even more tellingly than “Dreamhaus”, the opener is followed by “Lullaby for Twenty-Somethings”, and who’d argue with Portals’ verdict of describing the loop-based, meditative composition as “anxiety-soothing”? At least on the face of it, there’s no question that Cuddle Formation is almost a textbook example of that ubiquitous undercurrent that we’ve learned to call “dream pop”.
Commonly associated with bedroom production, for most dream pop has become the epitome of romanticist escapism, an indistinct longing for an alternate, unburdened reality or state of being, as exemplified by songs such as Washed Out’s early ‘classic’ “Feel It All Around”. And even more than the music itself, it is the by now clichéd means of production that has become paradigmatic for the denial of reality connected to the genre: the archetypical locus for the creation of dream pop is the bedroom, hence the quintessence of the domestic. Perceived as a shelter, the frightening outside world is debarred.
The thus observed orientation towards the domestic safe haven might even warrant a careful comparison with the epoch of Biedermeier in post-Vienna Congress Central Europe, when the political oppression that followed the restorative backlash after the revolutionary uprisings at the end of the 18th century and the subsequent Napoleonic wars constrained artists to avoid open politics and to focus on the retreat of their own homes. Considering societal developments of the last twenty years, it does not seem entirely far-fetched to see similar mechanisms at work today. Indeed, the surge (or resurgence) of music that might fit the umbrella term of “dream pop” in recent years, together with other, related backward-looking or even implicitly reactionary genres and sub-genres such as chillwave or hypnagogic pop, is probably not entirely incidental.Read more →
The paranoid post-9/11 society that superseded the brief glimpse of jaded optimism following the fall of the Berlin Wall has produced and by now firmly established conditions that oh so perfectly suit the restorative forces’ aspirations for ever more authority and ever less freedom of the individual whose dignity is reduced to the role they ought to play within the ingrained mechanisms of late capitalism, and dream pop’s remarkable success since the late noughties may at least to some degree be read as a tacit reaction to the forces that govern the society at large. It is music that inherits and adopts some of Biedermeier’s functions of providing a refuge where the harsh reality is ultimately shut out: thus understood, dream pop becomes the lullaby for that part of society that is usually observed as the most uncompromisingly political.
Listening to Earthbound, in particular the gently soothing, mesmerizing “Duckfangs Tickle my Ankles” – sort of a Klein classic, as other versions of the song were already part of his repertoire as Philip Seymour Hoffman – there’s probably no harm per se in perceiving his music a place to seek comfort in, as a form of art that allows the listener to enter a state of disconnected contemplation.
But the sleep of reason produces monsters, as Francisco de Goya reminds us with the most famous of his Caprichos from 1799. And a more careful examination of the music on Earthbound reveals that it would be all too easy to dismiss Klein’s take on dream pop as just another manifestation of the opium for an agonized generation.
Upon closer listen, it becomes clear that despite singing berceuses for his peers, Klein – he himself now in his mid-twenties – isn’t here to put his contemporaries to sleep. One minute and fifty seconds into “Lullaby”, the voice of an old man unexpectedly disrupts the track’s encompassing, gentle delirium, stating that “every person must have a star, an ideal to which they cling. The ideal may not be realized today or tomorrow but you must have an ideal which will carry you forward in life, to inspire you to do deeds and act”. The words taken by themselves may not stir revolution, neither today nor in the near future; though the source of the audio clip is certainly noteworthy. But nevertheless, with this sample it takes Klein a mere thirty seconds to undermine any desires of surrendering escapism that dream pop so easily evokes. More than the reference to the necessary ideal that everyone should have, it is the ideal’s connection to the deed that substantiates Klein’s music as a rejection of the denial of today’s realities.
In this vein, “Lullaby for Twenty-Somethings” becomes the starting point for a more comprehensive look at the artist’s agenda and his work. As founder and integral part of the FMLY collective, Klein’s music has always been aimed at something that necessarily leaves the bedroom behind, that transcends notions of the private and domestic to create a unifying, collective and thus progressive experience. It is here, beyond the obvious, where Noah’s art becomes political and thus unfolds its emancipatory momentum. Significantly, the “Dreamhaus” that is the subject of the cassette’s opening track is not a place for withdrawal for the tormented individual, but a very real (though now sadly defunct) location in Allston, Massachusetts, that served as the cradle for the building of a politically aware community.
To be sure, all this does not delegitimize dreaming as such. Idealism necessarily depends on the ability to conceptualize the counter-factual, but as explained by Goya in view of “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”, if fantasy (i.e., dreaming) is united with reason, it may become the origin of the art’s marvels (“unida con ella, es madre de las artes y origen de sus marabillas”) – and one of those marvels certainly is its inherent ability to trigger change. After all, the post-Vienna Congress period of oppressive Restauration not only spawned the subjects’ weltflucht into the introspective Biedermeier but also the pre-revolutionary Vormärz, not only Schubert’s soothing and reclusive “Winterreise” but also Heine’s subversive “Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen”. And there’s more than a subtle hint that Klein’s work – as that of the FMLY collective as a whole – is conceptually much closer to the latter piece of art.
With his own interpretation of common dream pop tropes, Cuddle Formation’s music actualizes Goya’s insistence on the necessary interplay between escapist dreaming and reason. As a consequence, his dream pop may serve not as a safe haven but as the nucleus for the emergence of true consciousness as the necessary condition of the possibility of the political in a 21st century that is ridden by post-modernist disorientation. Skip to Earthbound’s closing track: it is in this sense that ending an EP with one minute and thirty seconds of voices repeating “We will love each other” does ultimately imply more urge towards a profound change of society than the ancien régime might be ready to accept.
Listen to all four songs from Klein's part of Earthbound below. The split cassette was released in September by Colorado's Patient Sounds. There might be a few copies left, so be quick and head over here.