Return to Never transports us to our own teenaged late nights alone.
Noise, textural sounds, and field recordings all have a way of opening up space for the listener, weaving an environment around the ears that can defy the evidence of the eyes. In Return to Never, His Name Is Alive rolls up the garage doors and basement refuges of Warren Defever’s teenaged years with a whoosh of white noise and a charm of reverberating guitar.
This series of His Name Is Alive releases—which started in 2019 with All the Mirrors in the House and will culminate in a third—can of course be read as illuminatory of the work to come. Indeed, you can hear in the shimmery chords and industrial noises direct lines to Livonia, His Name Is Alive’s first release on 4AD. But there is a freedom to these early recordings that doesn’t feel present to the same degree on the great but label-constrained Livonia. That freedom provides a bit of insight into the creative process behind His Name Is Alive’s work. As Defever told Spectrum Culture, “The same gravitational forces that drove me into seclusion and to spend the majority of my childhood at home in the basement wearing headphones recording music alone are still active today, without much difference. “But relistening to older work can still impact one’s present perceptions. “Going back and listening and editing all these old tapes has really helped me lock into some of the basic elements in music and really sound itself that have been important to me since I was basically age 10.”
To create these albums, Shelley Salant transferred what Defever calls a “mountain of tapes” to digital form, simultaneously evaluating the songs for Defever’s later selection, “developing a rating system and a description shorthand [that] ultimately made the project possible.” One can only imagine the hours and deep musical insights required. Serving as mastering engineer, Defever then “cleaned up drop-outs and crinkled tape bits,” smoothed transitions and edited the tracks into a clean-sounding whole. Defever stresses that no new sounds were recorded for Return to Never, but “I found myself occasionally overlapping songs that were on both sides of a tape simultaneously—a step that would normally fall outside the usual boundaries of tape restoration and mastering—but recognized [that] the original methods and intentions of the artist definitely included this sort of approach.”
If last year’s All the Mirrors in the House was melodic ambience with punctuation of noise, Return to Never is almost its photographic negative, dashing wide-open spaces of environmental sound with melodic color. Coming on the heels of “Morning Machine,” the two-chord rhythmic strums of “Early Version” are plaintive, and the clear mental state provided by the three previous tracks allow the subtle variations in “Early Version” to shine through. Track order on an album of this nature is a critical thing—it can lead the listener by the hand or smack them in the face—but All the Mirrors in the House feels carefully thought through. Here, “Piano V” hums in with warmth, like the only possible next sentence.
Though the album plays best as an entire experience, there are a number of standout tracks. “My Thoughts Are to Thee Drawn” starts with a backdrop of synthesized chords overlaid with a soundscape of helicopter thwacks and occasional pepperings of static, until darker sounds take over and the lovely harmonies recede. From here, a snort of steam train leads us into “Guitar Echo,” which is just what it sounds like—and which, intriguingly, reminds one of the guitar work by Erdal Kızılçay on Jane Siberry’s “Sweet Incarnadine.” (If Defever in his teens can evoke the brilliant Kızılçay, he is not doing too badly!) “Last Thing Thought Of” delivers gentle waves of barely-changing tones with surprising emotional resonance.
The breadth of the performances is also notable. On the heels of the sophisticated noise-wash of “Forever Getting Lost” comes the drunken-Casiotoned “Chords,” followed by throaty chords, low-frequency buzz and a washing machine throb in “From the Night Tape,” each just long enough to engage us before moving on.
As on Mirrors, the song titles here vary between the very concrete and the near-whimsical. “Honestly,” Defever says, “if I knew that ‘Guitar Echo’ was going to be the lead single from the album, I can assure you I would have included a better title.” He explains that “most of the original cassettes include song titles written carelessly around the edges of the tape, without sufficient clarity to truly identify which track is which.” Defever consulted his notebooks from the time for additional clues; “when there was no title or description available I have affixed one that is appropriate in mood and era.”
The titling affords some comparisons between Return to Never and the previous Mirrors. On Mirrors, “Echo Lake” offers us haunting tones and mild splashing. The lake on Return’s “Lake Night” is more eventful — crashing waves and guitar fuzz lead finally to suspended horn calls. Mirrors’ “Tape Sound” is a pastiche of rhythmic white noise and passing cars; Return’s “From the Night Tape” brings us a garage band next door crossed with a pair of Levi’s tumbling in a dryer. Mirrors’ “Because Piano” paints dark curtains of sound. Return’s “Piano V”’s reverse-gated chords throb through major, minor, diminished. Altogether, Return to Never is the more complex sonic portfolio, less comforting but more evocative.
And perhaps that’s how we want our memories of youth: less comforting, more evocative. Return to Never transports us to our own teenaged late nights alone, the sounds of cars on the freeway and the next-door neighbor’s power drill coming through the window, our own tentative, heartfelt notes on the guitar.