Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing… Luis Buñuel
Tom Lecky’s recordings as Hallock Hill are situated at the intersection between landscape and memory, and The Union is a precise exploration of the ways in which this shifting ground both informs our sense of self yet also remains distant and remote – and the ways in which we seek to communicate and respond to this impasse. It has elements of nostalgia within the play of strings, but it has a broader purpose than this: at times it feels like a reification of the process of memory itself, a capturing of Adam Phillips’s dictum that ‘remembering at any given moment is a process of redescription; the echo can be different each time’.
The tracks on The Union refer back to specific places in space and time, places around the area of Hallock Hill in upstate New York, where Tom Lecky lived as a child. Each track is built from layered and treated acoustic and electric guitars and subtle grainy electronics. Lecky’s method is improvisational and rapid, the pieces coming together in a short space of time and recorded in a single take. The layering is also part of this rapid process and a key part of the overall schema, the complex entwinement and enmeshment of different guitar figures reflecting a coming together of voices that are at once disparate and intimately bound.
This seeming paradox of deep-set memories and ideas being reflected in bursts of improvisatory creation cuts to the very heart of Phillips’ point – these are like surface flickerings of something deeper rooted, the tracks like sparks from struck stone. The very act of listening absolutely supports this: you don’t listen so much as explore these songs, they are tactile, thicket-like wefts of sound through which the inner listener picks and turns. And you don’t necessarily retreat with anything solid to grasp, instead each listen has the feel of something primary, the experience not exactly new but subtly altered.
A track like ‘Grow’ is indicative of this: it is built around a simple acoustic guitar figure, yet the layers that Lecky gradually adds turn the song into a web or a weave. The ear can pick out maybe 3 or 4 tracks of acoustic guitar, guitars that never settle into a rhythm or a pattern, but instead restlessly roll and pitch, plus there is the tight wound playing of rapidly strummed and looped headstock strings (these pile up to sound like morse code), and beneath everything, a brooding, ominous upsurge. It is dense and something approaching unfathomable, yet never oppressively so; instead it is marked by a signature fluidity of style and of purpose. ‘The Miller’, which follows two tracks later, is created from similar means and has the same sonic and tactile density – in places it resembles branches against the sky – and like ‘Grow’ it has an atmosphere. I don’t mean by this that it creates an atmosphere, as such, more that it feels as if it is surrounded by something larger, suspended within a larger field of force. These aren’t field recordings, but they very often give that impression – a powerfully strange and unsettling effect.
I’ve wondered if the atmosphere that pervades the rest of the album is some kind of sonic ‘leak’ from the album’s penultimate track ‘Pencil Spin’. On initial listens this 10-minute long track didn’t seem to fit, built as it is not from acoustic instrumentation but a rotating metallic drone, harsh bursts of static and spidery, silvery contrails of electric guitar lines; but subsequent listens have revealed ‘Pencil Spin’ to be something like a fount, creating and capturing this sense of a field of force that surrounds the rest of the album. The track doesn’t bear description as such, and like much of the album is better thought of in terms of weather and humid upstate afternoons…
The album ends with ‘On Sundays when I wake up’ a limpid and peaceful piece of music. It speaks of contentment and a kind of wearied, calm resignation and is quietly beautiful with its downward arcs of guitar falling like soft rain. It is the final piece in this most elemental of puzzles and is an able demonstration of how the album manages to elucidate poetic concepts of self and memory and yet sidestep the normal modes of communication. The Union becomes, eventually, like an improvised extra-linguistic tone poem, the product of both an intense period of remembrance and a sustained, forgetful self-listening. It deserves your attention.