Spektral Quartet announced its disbanding last year, to the dismay of Chicago’s new-music community. We’ve since learned that there’s a silver lining: the ensemble, while officially defunct, yet has plans to release a few final recordings, including the one that dropped last month: “Behind the Wallpaper,” a song cycle by composer Alex Temple, which the Quartet recorded with vocalist Julia Holter.
It’s become a cliché to observe that art has the capacity to make the specific universal; but clichés only become clichés because there’s something solid in them. There’s no better illustration than “Behind the Wallpaper.” Temple was inspired to write the suite by her experiences during her transition, but the piece makes those experiences brilliantly and unforgettably accessible to pretty much anyone. Hearing Holter sing, in her pitch-perfect, uncannily neutral and yet grippingly beautiful soprano, about shame and secrecy, disguise and discovery, recognition and arrival—I can’t imagine the listener who won’t connect. And even if that listener exists, the sheer eloquence of the Quartet (comprising violinists Theo Espy and Clara Lyon, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen) is more than enough to ravish the ear.
Temple wrote the piece specifically for these artists in 2015, but its overdue appearance on record actually works to its advantage; with trans issues at the forefront of the national debate (if “debate” isn’t too polite a word for the posturing currently under way), its appearance now has added weight and significance.
The album opens with “Midnight Bus,” in which our narrator leaves “the warm yellow lights of the city for the quiet darkness of the outer suburbs” because (addressing herself, as she does throughout), “You had to meet someone / In a small white house.” There’s a reverse logic at work here; she can find anonymity in the city, but in the openness of the outer suburbs she feels exposed. It’s a journey both fraught and mysterious (we don’t find out who the “someone” she meets may be, or why the meeting is necessary), and there are spikes and lulls in the piece that accentuate this. Afterwards, on the titular bus, we’re told that there are fifteen fellow passengers, and that “they had the faces of aliens”—but on that final word the strings seem to voluminously exhale, as if the narrator, finding herself in the company of others who aren’t recognizably human, feels a sense of relief—almost of companionship.
It’s the opposite of what she feels in the following track, the busy, bustling “Unnatural,” in which she’s in a city office plaza among “Thousands of people—a wild tangle of blood and bones / Covered in their neighbors’ opinions.” She’s so empathic that she can’t help responding to the distinctiveness of everyone she sees (“Every haircut, hemline, horizontal stripe… / Was suddenly a map and a survey and an autobiography”). This doesn’t make her feel affinity for her fellow beings; it makes her feel reduced by them—as elucidated in a witty reversal of Aretha Franklin’s R&B anthem: “You make me feel like an unnatural woman.”
She seems at last to find community in “Tiny Holes,” which is one of the album’s standout cuts (and as such, was dropped as a single before the full album). The melodic line is lively and the dynamics are appealingly accessible and bright. Our young narrator is traumatized by an encounter with an image—“It made tiny holes in you”—but she forgets about it until years later, when she discovers people who had the same response to the same picture. In other words, she finds community. (Though she can no longer comfortably look at a shower head.)
“This American Life” is a powerful, initially uncomfortable song about stepping fully into self-realization and finding that it chafes. The strings usher us in with a lurching see-saw, a kind of instrumental sea-legs progression across a rope bridge, while our narrator complains that “This tight dress is uncomfortable / This nail polish is chipped.” Her expectations about finally displaying her true self are collapsing; she’s so much less than she imagined she’d be. Brilliantly, Holter’s voice is digitally darkened and deepened here, as though the long anticipated adoption of a female persona has only made our narrator feel more inescapably male. But she struggles on through her litany of disappointments, extending it to the world around her, her voice lightening until on the final phrase—“This dead dog is underground”—she’s put them all to rest.
“Science Park” is another standout track; it begins with the strings masterfully creating a sustained, chasm-like yawn as the narrator sings of standing on a “grassy expanse” near a nuclear reactor, and clearly feeling intense solitude and disconnection (each line she sings is echoed by a solitary violin)—until she looks upward, and both the strings and her voice undergo a kind of exultant sonic layering: “You hadn’t seen the stars so clearly in years / They seemed to form an elaborate diagram.” So that when her gaze returns to the barrenness of the titular park, what she sees now, instead of absence, is abundance: a “network of roads spanning the continent.”
My favorite track is “Fishmouth,” a brisk, panicky waltz about one’s true self being discovered (“You’d been practicing in the mirror / They caught you off guard. You weren’t ready”) and then completely falling apart in the attempt to explain (“When you attempted to speak / Whole fish flopping from your mouth / Wriggling on the floor, gasping for air”). It’s an arresting image, and the quartet has a lot of fun illustrating it. But what puts the whole thing over the top is our narrator’s sudden, unexpected ability to identify with the people whose individuality had previously repelled her (“All over the city / You’d noticed people spitting on the sidewalks… Did they try to explain a disconcerting situation too soon and end up with the ocean in their mouths?”).
And so it continues, with the narrator’s growth charted in each succeeding track. In “Purple Stain,” there’s the connection—vividly and unforgettably sketched—between her situation and biological aberration.“Night After Night,” another waltz, begins wittily:
In another century
You could have gone to a masquerade
In the courtyard of a vast palace
Hiding your form behind voluminous skirts
And your face behind a jeweled mask.
You did the next best thing: a party at an art gallery
As cheeky as that is, it’s a wonderful moment when our heroine—doubly masked (wearing her true self, but feeling safe because she’s in a place where masks are expected)—relaxes into herself for the first time, and Holter’s voice is digitally altered to have added presence and brilliance when she sings, “In the deep blue light / Everyone could see what was happening to you / But nobody knew who you were.” It’s an ecstatic moment, and—as in other tracks—hints at connections made (or imagined).
“Jolene” also enraptures, but in a tragic mode; as our heroine becomes increasingly comfortable in her own skin, the album widens the focus to encompass the collateral damage. Using the metaphor of identity as real estate, we’re asked to survey a renovated interior: “Open plan. Open windows / White walls. Wooden furniture. Moss-green shutters / A breeze from outside. Translucent curtains.” But there’s someone else in the picture—a confused and unsettled partner:
You’re sleeping peacefully
The wind scattering your auburn hair
But she’s been awake for hours
The house is changing
She’s terrified, but you’ve never felt more at ease
This is exactly where we need to be at this juncture: we’ve followed Temple’s narrator through alienation, self-doubt and dogged persistence to this ultimate victory (“You’re sleeping peacefully”)—but it’s been an entirely inward-directed journey. Changing the point of view to that of a loved one—an uncomprehending loved one—gives the project genuine integrity. No matter who we are, we all have responsibilities beyond ourselves. Just as the narrator’s arrival at self-realization hasn’t been easy, the way ahead won’t be a cakewalk, either. Because, really, when is it ever?
The final track then pulls us from that all-too-human quagmire of uncertainty into a hymn to possibility. “Someday the rising sun will reveal another world on top of our own,” Holter sings, before imagining that other world being like our own, but on a much vaster scale: “You’ll stand on a grassy peak, among people the size of trees… And across the water, you’ll see the gleaming spires of a distant city the size of the moon.” What this album does, with both virtuosic restraint and thrilling brio, is bring us to that city right now, fleetingly but unforgettably.
“Behind the Wallpaper” is available from the usual channels, including Spektral Quartet’s Bandcamp page.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.