How does one process deep grief except through a creative process that makes the raw feeling of it something tangible and not a flood of agony that overwhelms you. Kim Shively puts herself into that undertaking on the self-titled Mourning Cloaks album. The album is dedicated to the late and great Colin Ward whose passing in 2018 was a punctuation mark on a terrible era for the DIY music and art underground of which Ward was an important and influential participant. Thus the cover image is a powerful statement in itself looking like a broken mirror mosaic of self image not yet put back together.
Shively is perhaps best known as a filmmaker who was directly involved in the production, filming and editing of the great Wesley Willis documentary Wesley Willis's Joy Rides (2008), and the mid-2010s web series The Existential Beaver among her prolific body of work. The Mourning Cloaks album seems a natural outgrowth of Shively's cinematic creative work and one might call its eight tracks “sound design ambient.” With artists like Skinny Puppy and Oneohtrix Point Never taking that approach to composition in recent years as a method of songwriting influenced in part by development of sampling in hip-hop, the assembling of sounds guided by a concept seems like a direct analog to filmmaking.
Threads run through the Mourning Cloaks album that resonate with Andrei Tarkovsky's deep sense of contemplation in isolation of the meaning and significance of life and taking the time to really feel instead of disassociating the most painful and complex emotional entanglements that can haunt your mind for a lifetime.
The arc of sounds, themes, motifs, moods, textures and emotional colorings employed by Shively throughout the album are as orchestrated as any film, experimental or narrative. The sounds of rain and flowing water, of frogs, birds, cicadas and other insects make appearances throughout the album. Together they embody the principles of emotion and life and how they are inseparable even when in your mind you want to separate them when you're going through painful times. For these songs those sounds together wisely expresses how that connection can be a comfort and a reminder that it's all part of a bigger picture of which we are a part and if we can hold on to that bond we can get through our darkest times. The luminous synth figures, the soft bell tones, keyboard drones seem to serve as the better part of our conscious mind and our comprehension of feeling. It's a fascinating dynamic as you listen through the album because these artificial tones lend a coherence and focus that too is part of human existence. In the opening track “fluorescence” the synth melody is spare and like an illuminating beacon sprinkled along a path through the pond area of a wooded park so that the mysterious is not so ominous.
The theme of holding on to familiar sounds as a guide through one's own psychological fog is also a recurring element as on “searchlight” with the sound of airplanes in the distance processed over intermittent bell tones looped, all sounds and stimulus we identify when perhaps waking from a deep sleep in the dark and can follow to consciousness. On that song the grounding noises as an unconventional melody is reminiscent of some of the stranger tracks of the Friends Forever catalog—alien in tenor but with the resonance of pleasant memories buried deep in the mind, like a friendly ghost from your past.
The song that suggests perhaps the most about the core moods and modes of the album is “ruin” where the sounds of an ethereal wind seem to sweep down onto a desolate landscape. It brings to mind the image of an intergalactic explorer touching down on a distant planet where the remnants of an ancient civilization stand jutting up from the dust of ages. But as a metaphor for revisiting what lies destroyed in your psyche, avoided because the pain of those memories seems impossible to take on at once. But in excavating these spaces in the heart you find the treasures of your life and reclaim them on a new basis and reassemble them in spite of the disasters that tie all the great with the tragic together. It is the healing turning point of the album and most resonant with the cover art.
At the end Shively chose to name the song “softness.” Who can definitively say why but it is through softness and empathy that we get through some of the most destructive and traumatic periods of our lives and going forward it is that principle and not this far too popular tough attitude that permeates most world cultures and one whose utility is limited. The song has rain sounds, the voices of night insects and a lightly distorted drone that turns and expands like a tunnel through a dark and stormy night and in the end all the sounds turn both bright and ethereal, a richly textured ambient soundscape like aural cinema ending in a slowly swirling note like the tonal equivalent of the last of the direct moonlight of the night. It's a rewarding listen that offers no hackneyed sentiments, just an elegant poetry of composition and a sonic and emotional mosaic of deep meaning that puts in place a delicate catharsis that wouldn't be possible with more forceful or aggressive music. - Tom Murphy
released March 4, 2022
recorded in 2019 and 2020 by Kim Shively
Mastered by Luke Thinnes