Faulkner writes, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” On Angels, Matt Finney‘s lyrics creep into Maurice de Jong‘s songs like the haunted past that is neither forgotten nor recalled, always lurking, never wanted.
It Only Gets Worse is an intercontinental collaboration of Alabama poet Matt Finney and Maurice de Jong, the Dutch multi-instrumentalist behind Gnaw Their Tongues, and also Pyriphlegethon, De Magia Veterum, Cloak of Altering, Aderlating, Seirom, and many more. Angels was released in October 2016. It Only Gets Worse is certainly not the bleeding intensity one might expect from the prolific stalwart of doomed post-black metal misery. In this project, de Jong’s synths are light and airy, atmospheric and morose but not brutalizing or suffocating in density.
Spare spoken lyrics suggest a pedo-incestual abduction, recollection of love, and a burial in the cold winter earth. It comes as no surprise that Faulkner comes to mind for a number of reasons. The American south is evoked in the warmth and solidity of the speaking human body. There isn’t a thing characteristically southern in de Jong’s synth worlds, but as soon as the vocals come in with even just the slightest twang, I know exactly where we are; or, rather, from where we’ve come and evidently now have been displaced, through both space and time.
Finney’s voice is restrained, at the register just above a whisper when through gritted teeth something private is told slowly, almost tenderly, ear full of hot breath, knowing that others can hear. Not out of carelessness, but wanting to be heard and not knowing how to do it.
If the lyrical part of the album conveys a consistent narrative, and I think it does, then like Faulkner the voice moves among the characters. It begins with rope-bound girls, sisters, and twins in their church clothes in the back of a van (“Grace,” “Anna”). On track four,”Floral Print,” one of the girls tells a heartbreaking-turned-disturbing instance of family dynamics followed by atrocity that is understood in just a few words, eschewing any impulse for graphic explicitness. “Sepia Toned,” a term which might be a synonym for nostalgia, is a memory, a quiet moment of solidarity between the girls before their destruction, a secretive sharing that hints towards the future they will not have. The album’s final track, “Thaw,” opens the confines of oppressive interior spaces articulated so far. The perspective now is from the frozen fingers that work the icy ground, suggesting a hard-wrought grave site. The final line, “I might get to see some Christmas lights on the drive home,” is harrowing in both its banality and reflection of childish optimism.
Angels has a few fully instrumental tracks. “Memories” would be great for a movie scene wherein the protagonists have realized that, against all odds, everything is going to be okay, leaving them full of relief and possibility (and melancholy). It is shimmery pop. In the context of the murderpoetry of the rest of the album, the positivity that “Memories” presents is utterly fucked up. It’s memory as a subconscious and autonomous force, memory that “believes before knowing remembers,” the horrible acts of the past at work without us ever knowing it.
The line between glorifying and condemning violent, misogynistic, prurient, and perverted subject matter is often disturbingly unclear. The complexities and circumstances that drive a person to heinous acts and murder have been explored by artists since antiquity, and certainly Faulkner is among them. It’s easy to dismiss dwelling on death and violence as pessimistic, but it is a little more difficult and a little more correct to call it realistic. I don’t know if these lyrics are based on true events. Regardless, any good storytelling does not need to rely on memoir or factuality to do its work. I wonder if it is more violent for these girls’ stories to come back to life through Finney, or if their transmutation through his mouth is a layer of protection, a distancing that evades fetishizing their little-girl voices. I think it’s the latter. Angels does not sensationalize the difficult story it tells. It is the space between the text and melodies that is the most haunted, all that is left unsaid but known as if remembered.
It might be cliché to read too much into Finney’s southern characteristics. Yet, on the It Only Gets Worse Bandcamp page, their genre tags are: experimental, electronica, spoken word, and… Alabama. I can’t quite remember if it is a coincidence that I’m on a southern gothic fiction kick right now, or if getting this tape in the mail is the thing that propelled me to Faulkner.
Angels is disquieting, eerily calm, and devastating. But humanity is awful. And at least this is beautiful.