Review: Renee Willoughby – 33 (Irrational Tentent, Feb 10)

Even after only hearing it almost a month out, I knew I needed to review at least one of the tapes in this fivefold batch, because a new Irrational Tentent update, especially the first one in over two years, is always breaking news. The selection, unsurprisingly, is both eclectic and extremely on-brand—reliably rustic electronics from Claire Cirocco’s  stalwart Comme à la Radio project, both new and reissued material from Gingko founder Shelley Salant (as Shells and Water Damage, respectively), and a fresh offering from the elusive, previously NNM-reviewed Faded Ghost—but for me the highlight has to be Renee Willoughby’s debut recording 33, a conceptual yet deeply personal exploration of loss, memory, and love, the kind that transcends the bounds of what is “possible.” The Detroit multimedia artist’s ritualistic weave of speech/poetry, voice/song, electronics, samples, and “lo-fi ghost technology” is a presence as simultaneously ephemeral and defined as a paranormal apparition, a thick, vibrant aura of all things past and present, real and not, alive and beyond.

For a piece of music as sublime as this, context isn’t necessarily crucial; however, in this case it’s about as close to crucial as it gets. 33, alt-titled “Her Shape Is Light,” is about the thirty-three-year-old Willoughby’s late mother, who died, also at thirty-three, when Willoughby was three. But words that might come to mind when death and/or mourning is dealt with in such a direct manner—”bleak,” “final,” “gone,” etc.—have no place here, where the curtains covering both sides of the mirror have been drawn. There are no rules, no boundaries in these unforgettable soundscapes, like liminality itself has been smeared back and forth across the threshold, and the result is beauty unparalleled. It isn’t a perfect comparison by any means, but Willoughby’s spellbinding, invocation-like ambience and meaning-rich yet obtuse mantras has shades of Ghost Food’s previously peerless “Ghost’s Come Home” and ROT GM. And at the heart of it all is a daughter saying “I want to talk to you” and “I love you” to one who will always never be there. All is impermanence, and yet we are all alive in the countless moments we breathed, are breathing, or will breathe, each and every one stretching across infinity, across the boundary said to separate “is” from “was,” across the space between a daughter’s arms and a mother’s embrace.