Anderson’s detached and fraying vocals capture the sense of fate marching mankind toward a cliff.
Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet are two names frequently associated with the experimental, yet their first collaboration with each other, Landfall, is by their standards conventional. Nominally an impression of Anderson’s experience with Hurricane Sandy, the album employs the strings of the Kronos Quartet to dissonant effect to mimic the feeling of gale-force winds whipping through New York streets. Yet as overwhelming as that sense can be, the concept gives the music an anchor, lending it a structure that undergirds even the most distracted moments on the record.
Anderson, who collaborated on the score of the album using generative software, is herself absent from the first stretch, at least vocally. Instead, she lets the quartet build a head of steam as they fade into view, first faintly squealing and droning with ominous forecast in “CNN Predicts a Monster Storm.” The track leaves ample space amid its groaning strings, allowing faint flights of softly whining notes to take on the properties of birds scrambling to safer skies. Meanwhile, “The Water Rises” has a metronomic steadiness that befits the title, waves rhythmically crashing ashore and receding with gradually mounting intensity. The music is loose enough to avoid mere dourness, but it nonetheless raises an impressive amount of tension in a handful of brief tracks, paving the way for Anderson’s musings.
When she enters, on “Our Street is a Black River,” she is backed by some electronic drones and piano amid brief intrusions of strings. Anderson’s vocals, as ever a detached monotone, carries a combination of muted, retrospective horror and a perverse fascination. Her observations of the storm are both literal (“We watched as the sparkling, black river crossed the park, then the highway, then came slowly up our street”) and abstract (“From above, Sandy was a huge swirl, that looked like galaxies”). On “Everything is Floating,” Anderson recounts the storm aftermath and finding everything in her basement floating, from old instruments and stage props to books and documents, and the moment blurs the line between the objects and the memories they represent, with the initial horror of watching the water destroy her things giving way to her thinking “How beautiful, how magic and how catastrophic.”
Though Anderson only intermittently appears on the album, her voice and tone shapes much of the music. Song titles act as obvious signposts of narrative progression, and the Kronos Quartet likewise charts a logical path through the maelstrom. On “It Twisted the Street Signs,” strings dance chaotically over one another as debris whips through the air, yet the composition remains fundamentally rooted, as if embodying those street signs bending and warping but not quite tearing loose from the ground. Next track “Then It Receded,” naturally, calms the tempo and volume, gently fading into a moment of overcast tranquility. On “Thunder Continues in the Aftermath,” elegant violins are underpinned by a rumbling cello, and the track eventually explodes into fragments of scratchy violins with industrial electronic clanging. Electronic touches recur throughout the album, adding further contrasts of dissonance to the mix.
In spite of the focus of much of the album, however, there are moments which, in classic Anderson fashion, drift off to follow the artist’s mercurial whims. On “Dreams,” she amusingly recounts her anxieties over people telling her their dreams, even imagining a conversation in which she begs not to hear about their dream while her acquaintance plows ahead undaunting. “And they tell you the dream like it’s a movie you might want to see sometime, and not something that’s happening only in the back of their own head,” she complains, putting a huge space before the final “head” as she struggles with the sheer narcissism of the other party. Elsewhere, she recounts singing a song in Korean in a Dutch karaoke bar.
These diversions may seem random, but Anderson always finds a way to loop them back into the larger meditation, treating these daydreams as manifestations of the great abstract inkblot of the storm. Some of the tracks even take these asides and use them to reinforce the core theme, as on the howling, molten chaos of “Dawn of the World,” which compresses the spirit of The Rite of Spring into a two minutes of formless glissandi. The album’s centerpiece, “Nothing Left but Their Names,” modulates Anderson’s voice to a bassy vocoder moan as she recounts reading a book about extinct animals and the space around her opens out into a void of death. The track is funny in Anderson’s slurred digital chat, yet the reflections on animals wiped out by an indifferent and merciless planet epitomizes the helplessness more directly felt in the reliving of Sandy on the rest of the album. Anderson’s detached and fraying vocals capture the sense of fate marching mankind toward a cliff, reinforcing among her more personal recollections the knowledge that her own story matters as little as anyone else’s in Earth’s slow reaction to humanity’s impact on its ecosystem.