Appreciating the Ordinary with Land of Talk

Sam Woodring (Mister Goblin) talks Indistinct Conversations.

I came to love the band Land of Talk over a period of maybe three years. It was a slow courtship, but I can pinpoint the exact moment I turned the corner from finding them pleasant enough around to loving them unconditionally. This was at about 3 or 4 AM one morning in the middle of summer some years ago when I was very, very sick and very, very sweaty. Unable to sleep, I tried to wind down to the movie The VVitch, which backfired remarkably. Laying there soaked with sweat and confusion at why people didn’t find that talking goat completely ridiculous, I took to idly googling and stumbled across a very special Land of Talk song that I hadn’t heard before, having been unfamiliar with their pre-Cloak and Cipher material.

The song, of course, was “It’s Okay,” from their wonderful sophomore album Some Are Lakes, a ballad so perfect that if it appeared in another band’s catalogue it might threaten to delegitimize the whole thing. Hearing it for the first time, half-delirious in my bed, I was lifted into the chorus  and dropped like a cartoon piano with the perfect bait and switch of the lyric “Maybe when I die/I’ll get to be a car.” It’s a stunning song, and from that moment on out I was thoroughly hooked. Searching restlessly through the rest of their discography, and through their newest effort Indistinct Conversations, I never found another “It’s Okay,” but that actually turned out to be, you know, okay. For the best, even.

I want to be careful about my wording here, because I don’t think Land of Talk’s music is pedestrian or basic at all, but I do think it’s ordinary — and I intend that as the highest compliment. It’s ordinary in the same way everything I take for granted is: it’s ordinary like fresh air, or Honey Nut Cheerios, or love, or weird looking bugs. Even so, the songs on Indistinct Conversations are in large part, just that: indistinct. To appreciate them in their fullness, you might need to get down on your knees and use a magnifying glass.

The gorgeously understated opener “Diaphanous,” like many songs on the record, relies largely on a slow moving two-chord pattern that contains somewhere in it a magic trick; the closer you’re willing to look, the more it’s willing to reveal. The conversational flow of the lyrics, some kind of woodwind flourish that sounds like a didgeridoo made of PVC pipe, and the clanging percussion all come into focus after a few listens. The sum of all these elements together achieves an effect that feels somehow spiritual in a way that previous Land of Talk records didn’t.

The loping, meditative progressions on songs like “Compelled” and “Love in 2 Stages” feel like they wouldn’t be out of place performed in a huge, cavernous place of worship — particularly the latter with its reverberating percussion and Elizabeth Powell’s nimbly soulful vocal performance. Similarly, lead single “The Weight of That Weekend” makes use of an unexpected and vaguely religious refrain: “Holy water/house of pain/come through slaughter/to swim again.” Despite being the most immediately catchy thing on the record, “The Weight of That Weekend” still presents as more of a mystery than a song.

When I first tried to sing along to it in the car (as I have many times since) I noticed that I came in early during the chorus every time. Powell lets her words gain weight before she lets them go, and the music seems to watch the words for cues rather than the other way around. This feels like a theme throughout the album and is perhaps one of the things that makes it remarkable; the instrumentation is the ground that unfurls to meet the words as they emerge, and not a moment before, kind of like the scene in Nightmare Before Christmas where Jack Skellington descends into the graveyard. This is the long, unnecessary way of saying that the words set the pace.

That isn’t to say that Land of Talk doesn’t still rock, on occasion. They hearken back to the days of Applause, Cheer, Boo, Hiss a little bit on the highlight “Footnotes.” One can picture Powell doing Pete Townshend guitar windmill moves throughout the “Night after night/I’ll be there” section. As on all the songs, Powell’s vocals are not beholden to any one melody, but circle around the chord progressions like speedy drunken finches with really good pitch, and then there’s her guitar work. Powell’s strange tunings and voicings clash in a way so specific to her playing as she picks through the notes in each chord, that as much as I’ve tried to rip her off it never quite lands.

It’s interesting that I’m experiencing this new record in a context not unlike the one in which I described first falling in love with Land of Talk. As of this writing, like everyone else, I’m in quarantine — confined mostly to my apartment and though maybe not as sweaty as I was then, still plenty delirious and stir crazy. But as of now, Indistinct Conversations is not my favorite Land of Talk record. It’s mesmerizing, and I can tell there’s a lot left to explore, but I’m unfortunately in a moment where only the obvious and the familiar are satisfying. When life resumes, or whenever I’m able again to appreciate the ordinary, I’ll likely feel differently. In another three years, I’ll bet, I’ll love it to pieces. 

Sam Woodring currently lives in Maryland. He formerly played music with Two Inch Astronaut, and currently performs as Mister Goblin. He hopes to never, ever, ever become a music writer.