When I wrote about Daft Punk, I envisioned that entry as the first of a series of similar posts about all my favorite bands and musical artists. I was hoping to write other pieces like it about other artists I’ve been into for some time. Hopefully, my experiences with them would give me some things to write about and my enthusiasm would make it interesting. If I was going to do this, I knew that I’d be writing about Boards of Canada, and probably sooner than later. I’ve tried writing this post a few times over the past few weeks but it’s been very difficult for me to organize my ideas. Starting at the beginning has been frustrating so I’ll go backwards instead.
Tomorrow’s Harvest, the latest release from Boards of Canada, is a boring album. That’s a contentious statement if there ever was one, but it’s the simplest description of my feelings that I can come up with and a point that I wanted to make very clearly and get out of the way. The first three tracks are very good. The rest of it sounds very nice but feels meaningless. Boards of Canada’s fans have recorded several compliations of BoC-inspired music over the years as a tribute to their favorite “Gods” of electronic music. Tomorrow’s Harvest fits in nicely with those collections, feeling very inspired by Boards of Canada and all the sounds and effects and moods that their music has come to characterize over the years. It does not, however, break new ground or provide any kind of experience remotely akin to listening to their music made in the late 90s or in the early 00s. Many moments feel like imitations of earlier tracks. Had this album been made by another artist or group, it would either have been criticized as insultingly derivative or praised as a clever parody of the “Boards of Canada sound.” I realize that this is a very subjective take on the album, nothing but my opinion, which is all coming straight from the gut and which I still don’t completely understand. But I also believe that the time that I’ve spend with their music and the way that I’ve listened to it has given me a license to make such statements and that they’re worth more of your time than any of the seemingly-universal acclaim that this album has received from the press or from the duo’s most devoted fans.
And, recognizing how deeply so many people tend to feel about this music, I also recognize that I’m hardly the only listener out there who has what they know to be an “expert” opinion about it. Spend a few minutes on Twoism, We Are the Music Makers, or even the devoted Boards of Canada Subreddit, and you’ll encounter a level of emotional investment that’s almost unheard of in music outside of the realms of teen-pop. Surely there are always metal or prog-rock bands out there, making albums full of references to history and mythology and art and poetry, arranging it all together into puzzles for fans to unpack and discover and have deep conversations over. And there’s Radiohead, who wield a staggering amount of control over their fans’ listening habits and musical priorities. They selectively exposed their fans to one divergent realm of music after another, gently guiding at least hundred thousand listeners or so through the entire history of modern music, slowly culturing their fans into a new kind of listener more suitable for the post-Internet band they so deeply wanted to become.
Boards of Canada, on the other hand, have inspired nothing short of a cult following, one bursting at the seams these days, with very little direct communication or activity whatsoever. Having established a very recognizable sound that’s all their own, particularly on two “classic” albums and EPs, bros Sandison accidentally spawned a virtual world that was no longer limited to the confines of the music itself. “Boards of Canada” became synonymous not just with a very particular feeling of melancholy, but with he idea of “nostalgia” (childhood nostalgia, in particular), which electronic music had rarely concerned itself with before. Listeners who discovered them before the mid 00s encountered a very strange music. Reactions were mixed but always truly personal. But over time, discussion of “nostalgia” slowly spread like a meme, and is now held up as the “truth” behind their music. It now overwhelms the experience of listening to Boards of Canada, defines it, confines it, and reduces the very creative duo to a brand: blurry Polaroids, animated production logos from early 80s television, warbled-sounds pulled from aged tape… first the audience bought into this simplified idea of what Boards of Canada meant. Did the duo themselves begin to see themselves in the same way? Considering how Tomorrow’s Harvest feels like a shorthand transcript of their previous works, I have to wonder.
This is not to say that the new album doesn’t have a character of its own. It does feel creepy. And grim. And as desolate as the ghost town imagery that informs our expectations about the whole shebang. Much like a certain spector of death now hangs over the music of Coil, this is one of those albums that invites you to stare into the void and take stock of your mortality. This won’t stop people from adding it to their “chill out” playlists alongside Thievery Corporation and Zero 7. There are interesting themes here, but it plays out as if created by committee. The trademark syth pads, samples of voices counting, station ID jingles… the album feels like a Tumblr site devoted to collecting snatches of media that resemble the Boards of Canada™ aesthetic. What would have been short interludes on previous albums now constitute lengthy tracks, with no coherent structure holding them together. It’s a joyless album that makes me physically sick and is a chore to sit through. I hate it and I can’t help but shake the feeling that it’s a product something in the artist-listener relationship here that somehow got warped and twisted ass-backwards.
I don’t like the new album. “Reach for the Dead” is the best moment on it and the only truly affecting piece of music on it, much like “Dayvan Cowboy” was the saving grace of The Campfire Headphase in 2005. These aren’t simply two good-enough tracks that fans like because they were released as singles, but two of the most affecting pieces that Boards of Canada have ever recorded. I feel this is significant because it proves that the inspiration that made their earlier records so vital never left them, but rather, was buried by some other concern that else that rendered both The Campfire Headphase and Tomorrow’s Harvest as significantly weaker albums than their predecessors. These most recent efforts, in particular, were received by a sizable fanbase and critiqued by an Internet press industry that simply weren’t there to bother them during their time on Skam and their early releases on Warp. Am I trying to blame the fact that their music isn’t as enjoyable as it used to be squarely on the Internet? I don’t know. And what good would that do even if I was?
Geogaddi came out in February of 2002. I remember this very clearly, where I was living and what I was doing and how obsessed I was with their music at the time, actually looking up information about them online to see if they were releasing any new music any time soon, and then seeing that their new album had come out only days before. That sort of thing almost never happens anymore, so try to appreciate it if you ever get the chance. I remember going with my friend to the store to buy it. Unfortunately, that store was probably Best Buy but at least I can say that it was there for me when I needed it at least once. I don’t remember my first impressions of it or anything like that. I just remember it being with me for the rest of that spring and summer, gradually becoming a part of my life at the time along with the rest of everything else I’d collected from Boards of Canada up to that point. The album definitely felt more insistent than the rest of their music, or at least more assertive in delivering its musical and thematic motifs.
One review of Geogaddi, in a rather sheepish/apologetic recommendation of the album, made an interesting point about the reputation that was surrounding the duo and the nature of their work. “This is BoC in hi-fi, and not just in sound-quality either. All of their traditional cliches have been turned up to 10. It’s as if the earlier records were petri dishes to divine the most effective ways to cause mass-swooning among the faithful.” It’s never “expensive” sounding but is certainly the work of musicians with a desire to make a better-sounding long-player experience, and with more attention and probably resources this time around to make it happen. This doesn’t compromise or distract their vision, if anything it brings certainly elements of their sound to the forefront of the listener’s attention, perhaps stripping the music of some of its ambiguity but creating a clearer picture of their vision than ever before. They had already built of a musical language that was very much all their own, but the way it was all brought into crisp focus here, coupled with great track sequencing and the feeling of connected-ness between the tracks (which was missing from later albums) makes Geogaddi a very interesting listening experience.
I heard the In a Beautiful Place in the Country EP during the summer of 2001. I bought it and had the CD in my car during most of that summer, so my memories of it are usually associated with driving in my car on the way to my summer job (in the dead of night, stocking shelves at a big-box retail store starting at 4:00 am) or sitting in the car after work in the afternoon. My air conditioner was broken and I had black leather seats. I’d open the driver’s side door and take a breath before getting inside. It felt like an oven, and in less than a minute I’d always begin sweating profusely. I’d put this CD on and to this day, every time I hear the beginning of
“Kid For Today,” the skin on my arms and legs begins to tingle, as if all the pores are slowly opening up in the beginning stages of whatever signal cascade begins the perspiration cycle. And I feel very alone. And tired. But also very comfortable. The songs here are very comforting (quite the opposite feeling of Geogaddi, as a whole), which probably has a lot to do with the lasting appeal of this EP, which seem to be some of Boards of Canada’s most-recognized songs, if Internet message boards are anything to go by. I imagine that this release, which actually came out in late 2000, is their most immediately-accessible work, and probably came out at a time when more people than ever were getting into their music. This was also the height of Napster’s popularity. I don’t remember what lead me to download their music in the first place, but I first heard Boards of Canada after downloading some mp3s, more or less at random, off of the network. I don’t see how anyone at the time could have been interested in this kind of music, downloaded this EP, and not fallen in love. That’s the sort of bullshit generalization that I usually hate to read but it’s one that I believe enough to go ahead and make myself.
Sometime in late 2000, I downloaded some tracks off Napster from Music Has the Right to Children, and a few mp3s taken from the earlier EPs. Those EPs are all great. I could talk about them a lot, although I feel like I should spend most of the rest of this most talking about the album, instead. My memories of Hi Scores and Twoism, which I often confused with each other until I was able to get them on CD, whenever it was that they were each re-issued. “Hi Scores,” “Nlogax,” “Seeya Later,” “Everything You Do is a Balloon,” “Sixtyniner,” “Oirectine“… well, now I’ve just linked to most of the music on them, but listening to all of those (and quite often, on a loop for a few hours, late at night), I remember feeling aware of myself in a way that I’d never quite experienced before. I honestly do feel like I never quite grew into my self in the way that you’re supposed to during puberty or early adolescence. I do feel like the autopilot setting that everyone’s on during childhood was never switched off for me until I was out of high school, and that I was never truly living in the moment with a real understanding of who I was, what I wanted in life, or the understanding that I was truly responsible for making my own decisions, until some time during that year. I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding like I’m trying to get sympathy, make excuses for the person I was at that time or before then, or looking at my life as if it were a story I’m writing, and trying to assign interesting psychological qualities to the main character. Anyway, I’m not saying that these tracks made me experience a kind of awakening. But they were there when it was happening to me, so I’ve always had very special feelings about them. And that personal attachment is probably why I get so irritated by the legions of Boards of Canada fanboys that slowly came into existence over time, whose public displays of affection for the group often sound like Evangelical testimonials, at least in terms of the “personal relationship” that they seem to have with the music. I liked the idea that this music was “mine,” which is laughable to admit in any case today, but my point is that I felt this attachment in a personal way, and the emergence of a large community of
people dudes excited about it in ways that looked very silly from the outside, made me wonder if I was nothing but just another dork gushing — privately, publicly, what’s the difference? — about how much it all meant to me.
Along with those tracks, I’d downloaded “Roygbiv,” “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” and “Happy Cycling” (maybe my favorite Boards of Canada track, and one that closes the album so perfectly that it’s hard to believe it was included on the Matador release as a US-only bonus track) from Music Has the Right to Children. I bought that album in late 2000, about 2 weeks before Christmas, and listened to it every day for the rest of that Christmas break. I remember driving to a Christmas party in another state — I shouldn’t have RSVP’ed but then again, they shouldn’t have invited me to go in the first place — and playing through the album twice. I don’t know if I’d ever played music in my car as loud as I was blasting “Sixtyten” that night. More than anything, I remember listening to this album on headphones while laying in bed, usually while thinking about a lot of things that were bothering me at the time. Maybe that should make me feel sad today, every time I listen to it, but it doesn’t. It didn’t inspire me or make me feel like I could “escape to another world” while listening to it or anything quite so precious as that. But it did make me feel like I was entering a new phase in my life, one that would hopefully give me some space to relax (not in a strict physical sense) and some opportunities to have some fun and rewarding experiences. There’s no way to talk about any of that stuff without going off on some boring tangents. I’ll just say that the album sounded like the perfect synthesis of so much of the music that I was enjoying at the time, but also something new and completely different. I didn’t come into it with great expectations or having experienced any of the myth or hype around it that would slowly grow over time, so I got to know it very slowly and by the time it was famous, getting reissued, getting a perfect score from Pitchfork, etc., I already felt like it was mine in a way that no other music had ever been before. That’s a feeling that’s worth savoring for a short time, but like I’d slowly learn over time, don’t attach any feelings of identity or accomplishment to stuff that you like, because its “importance” or “meaning” is beyond your control. I still love Music Has the Right to Children, even as it’s become a go-to “classic” electronic album that people recommend to curious listeners, even as its reputation has dwindled over time thanks to chin-stoking Internet geek hyperbole, even as I’ve even seen a backlash against it from people who are just tired of it. I don’t know what I’ll think of it a year from now or ten years from now, but I like to imagine myself listening to it for a long time and seeing what kind of new associations I can make with it.
I picked up a used copy of Music Has the Right to Children at a store in 1999. I’d seen an advertisement for it in a magazine and the art was really interesting, plus it was on Matador, so I thought I should try it out. I started to take it to the counter but put it back in the racks and bought LP5 by Autechre instead. I often wonder how my feelings about this music would have changed if I’d started listening to it back then.
Maybe that’s all I have to say about Boards of Canada. I could say more, but it’s a dilemma between wanting to talk about one of my favorite groups, and understanding that the attachment I have towards this music is based on feelings that I’d probably be better off not trying to articulate. There’s a lot of conflicting feelings in this music, and it’s interesting to talk about, but the experience of just getting lost in it is so much more rewarding and worth preserving. This is music that deserves a cold listen, free from promises about exactly what it’s going to deliver. Maybe that’s true of most music? Once you’re fed the press release, it can be hard to have an honest response that’s not tainted by other people’s ideas. Maybe that’s why I’ll be perfectly happy if no one ever reads this. I wanted to get this all out, maybe so I could stop thinking about doing it in one shape or form in the future, but I don’t want anyone to go into this music with expectations or come away from it with anything other than an interpretation that’s come straight out of their own imagination and nowhere else.