Tim Hecker was the underground choice for the 2000s’ most hypnotic preacher of ambient.
“Hauntology” is nostalgia for lost futures or longing for a past that never existed. Philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term, so that’s a vast understatement of what it actually means, but this term has become useful in the 21st century. It could be argued that the bedrock of American conservatism is based on a desire for a Pleasantville-style United States that was only reality through television screens. Modern art is even more so immersed in Hauntology, Vaporwave’s constant plunge into molassified sounds the prime example. But drone music did something different with Derrida. Nostalgia is the bittersweetness of remembering the past, but Stars of the Lid and Natural Snow Buildings didn’t just recreate that savory destruction, but also crafted a past filled with blissfully beautiful oblivion. The memories themselves were unsettling, harrowing, gorgeous things. Lost signals from worlds we only vaguely knew but could completely feel their sorrow.
Stars of the Lid’s Tired Sounds of is drone’s moment of sheer triumph, but Tim Hecker was the underground choice for the 2000s’ most hypnotic preacher of ambient. Best known now for the titanic duo of Ravedeath, 1972 and Virgins, it’s easy to forget that Hecker emerged fully-formed. After two records under his Jetone moniker, Hecker released Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again under his own name in 2001, and tectonic plates began to shift.
Released less than a month after Tired Sounds of, Haunt Me can be seen as its polar opposite. Stars of the Lid made songs that stung like a Texan sunset, melting time and sound at its leisure. With a Canadian making songs like “Arctic Lovers’ Rock” and “Boreal Kiss,” coldness wasn’t optional. Though with Kranky reissuing both Haunt Me and its sequel Radio Amor, it’s clear that this wasn’t the frostbitten work of Biosphere. Hecker was working in palettes and temperatures not yet heeded.
Haunt Me is the less thrilling but more cohesive of the two, mostly thanks to the album really only being eight tracks, rather than the claimed 20. Most songs are split into multiple parts that flow into each other, distinguished due to minute emotional drifts. “October, Part 1” floats from a mesmeric haze to fading more and more into the ether until “October, Part 2” only presents chopped up, half-forgotten bits from part one.
Radio Amor similarly enjoys repeating motifs, but with a different desired effect. Haunt Me is a chilly exploration of our Earth after the end of time. Radio Amor, as the title implies, is a late night with the radio just out of reach, tuned to eldritch stations that hum in and out of earshot. In comparison with its older brother, it’s an utterly radiant experience. Don’t mistake that for comfort though. Radio Amor is welcoming, but, much like the Overlook Hotel, it’s hard to find your way out. “(They Call Me) Jimmy” has a chorus of hyper-processed vocals, still creating a full wave of notes, but acting more as the song’s breathing rhythm. A glitched out, ebullient piano pops up a few times throughout, always signaling a transcended moment. Opener “Song of the Highway Shrimper” starts with the blinking keyboard buzzing around, seeming coherent one moment, twitching into nonsense the next.
“I’m Transmitting Tonight” ends up as Radio Amor’s thesis statement. That same piano returns, more butchered up than the last. But its echoes firmly create an expanding warmth that fills the ears. Haunt Me’s defining moment comes from the trio of “City in Flames.” Luminous keyboards dot the sound, bouncing back and forth between channels. Skittering, unfathomable noises like puppy-sized crickets scattering across a wooden floor pop up from time to time. An uncomfortable, woozy attempt to make the engrossing “melody line” all the more unsettling.
Haunt Me, in both song titles and general atmosphere, seems to be falling into a man-made, icy apocalypse. Radio Amor is a prototype of the Caretaker’s stellar An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, tricking the mind with amnesiac snippets of sound and a warmth like slipping into a bath. But both are held together with Hecker’s unparalleled ability to make sound feel tactile. These, along with all of his albums, are meant for headphones only so that each noise can properly render its breathing, 3-D picture. But, perhaps more important than that, both albums hint at something lost. Haunt Me promises a future decimated by a deep freeze. Radio Amor is a mind slipping out of focus, unsure of the difference between dream and reality. Without words, without a larger context, Hecker was able to make loss feel ascendant. Just with his first two albums, he was already haunting us. And we would beg him to do it again and again.