The Portuguese have a word – saudade – without an exact English translation. Generally speaking, it’s the feeling of profoundly missing something that once was or never was but that will never be again. It’s the absence of a loved one. It’s the hole in our heart. It’s an emotional resonance we feel that we can not adequately describe with words.
In many ways, that’s the beauty of Lowercase Noises. The driving force behind the project is Andy Othling, a guitarist whose stated mission is to play his guitar as slowly as possible. For almost a decade, Othling has been releasing works that might be considered concept albums, but without the requisite lyrical narration of something like The Wall or American Idiot, the listener isn’t able to rely on words, but on the feelings provoked. It isn’t post-rock, but it’s in the same family tree–in an interview last year Othling used the term “atmospheric.” I tend to explain it by saying it’s the background music in a movie, but on a much more sophisticated level, evocative and leading.
Some of Othling’s earlier albums were inspired by and released to coincide with the birth of his children: Marshall (2010), Vivian (2011), Blake (2013), and James (2015). Others were borne of natural phenomena like migration or death or the desert or the stars.
In 2014 he released his last full length album – This is For our Sins – a work inspired by the Lygov family in the Siberian taiga who existed beyond the fringes of society, unaware of World War II, who depended on recounting their dreams as entertainment. (A fascinating article about the Lygovs can be read here). To listen to the album without any understanding of its genesis is an emotional undertaking. Knowing the source of the inspiration and scattered details from the Lygovs’ elevates the resonance.
And now here we are in 2017 and Othling’s mastery of layered guitar sounds, some run through effects, others the clean pick of an acoustic accompanied by keys and atmospheric soundscapes of unknown origins (unknown to me, Othling clearly knows where they come from) is back on full display with the new album The Swiss Illness.
To explain the concept behind the new album, I’ll direct you to this quote from Othling himself (found on his website).
“I wanted this album to be about death, but it didn’t fit. Instead I expanded on the idea of loss and made it about nostalgia, which for me means the loss of things both large and small, both incredibly heavy and largely inconsequential. I experienced all those things in 2016, and as a result the only thing I could create was a minimal, slowly-evolving and (hopefully) beautiful dive into that feeling. Overlaid is the story and history behind the word “nostalgia”, which was coined by doctors studying Swiss mercenaries far away from home, and the physical ailments brought on by their feelings.”
The Swiss Illness is as immersive as anything else in the Lowercase Noises catalog. Othling has tapped into his own experiences, but he has also magically captured and distilled the emotional core of this particular moment in time.
TL;DR I could tell you about how lush the album is. I could tell you that it would be great background music for writing or painting or creating or meditating or dreaming—and it is—but the most beautiful part of what Othling has done, for me, is bridging the language gap between words like “nostalgia” and “saudade” to remind me of my humanity as an individual and my connectedness to a larger human condition. This is a rare case of nothing being lost in translation, perhaps even enhanced. This is a powerfully brilliant album I cannot recommend enough.