Out With a Whimper
So this is how it ends. Dirty Beaches, the project of Alex Zhang Hungtai, comes to a close with this latest and final release, Stateless. The album is a far cry from where Dirty Beaches began. No more are the lo-fi electronic beats, the warped rockabilly tunes, the reverb heavy, incomprehensible yelps and croons. Replacing them are cellos and looping synths – it’s an unfortunate substitution.
Part of what made Dirty Beaches so great is that, even though his music was sometimes difficult to listen to, it always sounded dirty and subversive – it was always cool. One got the sense, listening to “Lord Knows Best” (off of 2010’s “Badlands”) or “Shangri-La” (off of 2009‘s self titled debut) that the music was emanating from some dodgy basement party, or the bottom of a swamp. You could hear the sounds, but they were always kept at a distance by the production aesthetic, a distance that made them seem exclusive in the way that underground music always has been. There wasn’t anything great about the music itself, but it had that effortless vagabond cool that few musicians are able to pull off.
Stateless however, is clear as can be. Hungtai takes us out of the smokey alley swamps and instead, suspends us in mid air, or sets us adrift on the ocean. The four track album clocks in at just over 40 minutes with each track melting into the next. From the get go, there is not a single melody to speak of, nor is there ever a moment of silence. This is a meditative soundscape, although the music is unwaveringly ominous. If you close your eyes while the album plays, it is easy to lose consciousness. The lack of contrast makes for a monotonous listen, but also heightens the void-like quality of the record.
Stateless is an excellent name for the album and is likely a meditation on the inherent rootlessness that results from life as a musician. The constant touring and displacement are certainly well illustrated by the music on this record. The thundering low end, the searching siren synths and the crescendoing wash that goes over every track seem to suspend time and remove any sense of physical space.
Despite all this, the grandeur, and the impressive production, Stateless feels more like a whimper than a bang. Given the rest of Dirty Beaches’ output, it would have been nice to hear the project end with that same sneering attitude that permeated the rest of his work (although this album is better than the similarly spacey Water Park O.S.T.). What we’re left with is a Dirty Beaches album that just isn’t cool. At its best, Stateless is a good backdrop for a meditation. At its worst, it’s sounds like a bad soundtrack to a science fiction film, or, with the somber cellos of final track “Time Washes Away Everything”, a bad soundtrack to a bad drama. The seriousness of the titles and the music just isn’t what Dirty Beaches always seemed to be about, and it’s a shame that this is the way such an illustriously renegade project comes to a close.