Slowly Dismantling is an enjoyable album. Is it supposed to be?
The tracks on Yann Novak’s Slowly Dismantling begin with a far-off mechanical thrum that slowly grows louder, like the din of some dread siren on the horizon, before revealing their colors. They bleed into the red or crescendo into noise, as if Novak’s flayed them bare. There are no discernable instruments, no pianos or guitars, no stereo depth, just an obstinate and flat wall of sound. This isn’t music meant to evoke a sense of place; in fact, it feels oddly placeless.
Maybe that’s on purpose. Slowly Dismantling is in part a tribute to the Washington Hotel, long the epicenter of the queer community in Novak’s hometown of Madison, WI until it burned down in 1996. Its ruin is shown on the cover. “I was 17 when the hotel burned down,” Novak explains in a letter accompanying the album’s release. “What I expected to be the formative site for exploring my newfound queer identity was suddenly lost to the past, and I was left wondering how such a space would have influenced me.” This is an album, then, not about a place but about the absence of one. No wonder it feels like the inverse of so much ambient music—as flat as most ambient is deep, as relentlessly forward-moving as most ambient drifts.
There’s a kinship between Slowly Dismantling and Midtown 120 Blues, DJ Sprinkles’ great deep-house treatise on the decontextualization of specifically queer music. That album gave us house tracks as lush and swooning as any ever made but added furious narration to ensure we took the music with the context. As great as the sounds themselves were, they were hard to enjoy without taking into account Sprinkles’ thesis that dance music is the music of suffering. Likewise, Novak refuses to allow us to think of Slowly Dismantling as something we can just sink into and forget about everything. The ambient music of suffering. It’s a hard pill to swallow.
Especially since, if you didn’t know anything about the music, you might think of it in the same way as a Thomas Köner or Warmth album: pure, uncluttered sound. It’s kinda soothing. There’s a thrill to the end of “The Metaphor of Party,” where it’s been building slowly for most of its runtime and is now audibly on its way to dissipating into noise. It’s a crescendo as powerful as any post-rock band can muster. And the album’s good on the ears, featuring the kind of rich, bassy production that Novak’s label boss Lawrence English has made his métier recently. This wouldn’t be a bad album to fall asleep to—but one gets the sense Novak would prefer you didn’t.
If Novak’s letter is any indication, making the record was a cathartic experience. But how are we meant to respond to this music? When we enjoy it as pure sound in the way we might enjoy a Brian Eno album, is that a perverse feeling we should suppress? Why is Novak using ambient music as the medium for the message? Is the message contained within the music itself, or is it in the context surrounding it? Slowly Dismantling is an enjoyable album. Is it supposed to be?