A quick note: I’m not a professional music critic in any sense. I’m experimenting with critical music writing to flex my creative muscle and explore my ability. So please do take the below with a pinch of salt!
Claude Debussy was a well-known proponent of intuition over logic in music. For him, creating music was an instinctive act, rather than something to be examined or designed. “Beauty must appeal to the sense,” he once said. “It must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part.”
In After Dark, we’re asked to fall even deeper into Debussy’s music, without thought, analysis, or reason. Created by Chicago-based sound artist Forest Management (a.k.a. John Daniel), After Dark takes samples from an old vinyl copy of Debussy’s three symphonic sketches known as La Mer. It then reconfigures them into thick drapes of tenebrous drone, finding new caverns of beauty within Debussy’s scherzos as they stretch, unfold, and soar.
La Mer, in its original form, is a kind of musical mimesis. Across 20 minutes, Debussy explores the sea’s surface: light playfully dapples on calm waters, seagulls plunge against a blue sky, and as we listen, we gradually feel the vastness of the ocean reflected within ourselves.
After Dark’s adaptation considers the scene from an alternate perspective. It plunges beneath the waves into depths dark and unfathomable but alluring in their mystery.
Album opener ‘Seventh Time’s A Charm’ starts just below the surface, looking up as swathes of shimmering drone reach down like light refracted through sliding glass. ‘Patterns in the Carpet’ and ‘In The Building’ go a little deeper, wrapping themselves in warm currents of sound that softly rearrange and overlap. Lead single ‘Magnolia’ presents a softer, exploratory movement, one that gently rises in intensity while also pulling itself apart, before breaking like a wave against the shore.
‘A Smell So Sweet’ takes a reprieve from the depths. Here Daniel adopts a more joyful timbre, and it’s undoubtedly the moment on the album that most mimics the lively approach of the source material. (Specifically La Mer’s second movement ‘Play of the Waves’.) ‘A Smell So Sweet’ is inherently restorative – as if Daniel has surrounded himself in nature and inhaled deeply. It’s the lightest moment on the record.
An earlier indication of this tonal shift is ‘Sitting on Rocky Streams’, the clicking and clacking of which conjures images of eroded cliffs and endless tempests of falling rock. ‘The Blue Light Blues’, meanwhile, feels like a journey into pitch-black ocean chasms, where the only light comes from creatures spilling out phosphorescence as they dumbly wander the shadows.
‘The Blue Light Blues’ leads the album into its most two poignant moments: ‘Hollywood Avenue’ and ‘The Grand Lobby’. Both tracks echo something of James Leyland Kirby’s now-concluded The Caretaker project. In each, lost and distorted sound resonates through layers of static and an eerie sensation of displacement. ‘The Grand Lobby’ is particularly moving in this regard, transmitting faded ballroom music as if across enormously empty spaces, both physical and emotional.
The Caretaker used such motifs to explore the destructive effects of Alzheimer’s. It’s difficult not to feel that the warped sounds on ‘The Grand Lobby’ ruminate similarly on memory and past experience; how even the most beautiful moments become submerged and lost as life runs inextricably toward its terminus.
Yet despite these more haunting moments, After Dark is not a record without hope. Indeed, it explores a more optimistic message via the opposing and contradictory concepts of darkness – it can be unknown and frightening, yet also comforting and warm. And although we use “after dark” to convey that day has ended, and night has begun, we could easily twist the term to refer to the cessation of gloom. Light always follows after dark.
After Dark is a nocturnal record, but there’s illumination to be found throughout. Album closer All I Know radiates with it: acquiesce to the dark, and know that light will eventually break through the surface.
But perhaps to analyze in this way is to do the music a disservice. “Beauty must impress us or insinuate itself into us within any effort on our part.” There’s a lot to be said for this record, but ultimately there’s no effort required to descend into the shapes, colors, and textures of After Dark.
Like the seemingly infinite expanse of the sea, After Dark is inherently beautiful.