In which two of America’s finest experimental artists team up to create a modern classical suite about Hurricane Sandy, the deadliest hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, which caused approximately $68.7 billion of damage (the fourth largest amount in American history). The damage happened to include Laurie Anderson’s house in New York, which had to be evacuated during the storm. That understandably traumatic experience provides the narrative drive of this album.
Kronos Quartet, fresh off their excellent collaboration with Malian collective Trio Da Kali last year, here create a frightening impression of the hurricane, with their traditional lineup swirling around each other in frenzies that sound bigger than the four instruments that are playing, simply because of the forcefulness and technical skill they evince. The way each player scrapes and drives the sound out from their respective strings can be frightening in intensity, particularly on “Dawn of the World” and “It Twisted the Street Signs”, which really do sound like their titles. They convey a fierce natural world, one that has no need for human interference and can easily eradicate mankind’s achievements with just the barest of warnings.
Laurie Anderson drives the apocalyptic vision of these pieces even further with glitchy electronic beats, distortions, and samples that rumble ominously beneath the acoustic instrumentation and occasionally erupt above them, as on “Never What You Think it Will Be”, which suddenly disrupts the somnolent flow of the previous track “Galaxies II” with its almost dubstep-like heavy introduction.
Yet I’m disappointed with the lack of Laurie Anderson’s distinctive narration on this album; she appears on only 6 out of the 30 tracks. To some of us, her spoken-word performances are as iconic as any of those by modern music’s great vocalists: so far as I’m concerned, she can proudly stand alongside Elvis Presley, Bryan Ferry, Morrissey, and of course her late husband Lou Reed. She’s every bit as distinctive, weird, tender, and frightening; her enunciation and timing is to die for. She should be considered the gold standard by any other spoken word performance artists. So the fact that Landfall is a mostly instrumental album at first limited my good impressions of it. Had she finally run out of verbal ideas?
But then I realised that the lack of spoken word performances was on purpose. Because Landfall is not just a concept album about Hurricane Sandy, it’s also a concept album about the failure of language to either describe or protect us from cataclysmic events.
Indeed, Anderson’s only attempt to describe the hurricane itself goes like this: “From above, Sandy was a huge swirl/That looked like the galaxies/Whose names I didn’t know”. She ends the description with a shrug, an acceptance of the limitations of her knowledge, and suggests how language can’t quite adequately describe the storm – she hasn’t got the words for it, she can’t offer up the names of those galaxies that it looks like. Then on the album’s centrepiece, “Nothing Left But Their Names”, Anderson contemplates how extinct animals eventually become nothing but their names in a book. Some people might think that this existence in a book grants the animals immortality, but Anderson knows better; in a later song called “Everything is Floating” (everything), she sees all of her books and all of her life’s work floating around in the basement after Hurricane Sandy, dissolving in the water, and she realises that nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever, not even the written word. Language is transient and inadequate; it cannot save us.
So it’s suitable that Laurie Anderson’s voice is lost in the storm on Landfall. Her musings float around the album’s wreckage, so ably conveyed by Kronos Quartet, like everything does in her basement following the storm, signifying so much, and yet signifying most of all human being’s insignificance in the face of the universe’s frighteningly unstoppable natural forces.
So it’s a work about our mortality, much like her previous masterpiece, 2015’s Heart of a Dog. And it’s a work about the frustrating limitations of language and technology, about the difficulties of human interaction in the modern age, much like her magnum opus, 1984’s United States Live.
It returns to all of her favourite themes then, but most of all, unspokenly, to her Buddhist faith. Because how does she react to the realisation of the pointless existence of mankind, and particularly of all the material possessions that we’ve accumulated, as she surveys the wreckage in her basement? With these words, in her inimitable voice:
“How beautiful/How magic/And how… catastrophic.”