Album Review: Slauson Malone - A Quiet Farwell 2016-2018

I’ve written enough album reviews since the inception of this site that I find I tend to use, and reuse, specific words or expressions when I’m describing the album in question. With instrumental and ambient music, I tend to talk about how ‘evocative’ something is; I talk about ‘vivid imagery’ found painted in certain lyrics; I describe sounds as being cacophonic.

These are just words and expressions I use, I guess, but in attempting to wrap my head around this review in question, I had to stop and wonder if the recycling of my lexicon made these phrases appear less genuine, and are full of empty hyperbole.

I wondered about this, as I approach this specific review, because I am certain, in the past, I have used variations of the phrase ‘It’s like nothing I’ve heard before,’ or the similarly minded ‘It has to be heard to be believed.’ But at the risk of empty hyperbole, A Quiet Farwell 2016-2018, is truly like nothing I have heard before—and, it does really have to be heard to be believed.

In other reviews, it’s referred to as ‘genre neglecting,’ and, more pretentiously, ‘post-genre,’ which is, I guess, the easiest way to describe the output of both the now, possibly defunct, New York collective Standing On The Corner, as well as its former member, Jasper Marsalis.

Under the moniker Slauson Malone, A Quiet Farwell is Marsalis’ first effort since departing the collective—slightly over 32 minutes, though a staggering 20 tracks total, A Quiet Farwell is best described as a dizzying, disorienting, and kaleidoscopic journey. You can call it an album, or a ‘mixtape’ if you will—but at its heart, it’s an experience, and an exercise in the juxtaposition of emotional opposites. It’s as gorgeous and inviting, as it is hideous and frightening; it’s as melodious as it is dissonant; it’s as joyful as it can be somber.

Recently, in the piece I put together reflecting on Solange Knowles latest album, When I Get Home, I talked about the idea of the ‘sound collage.’ When I Get Home, much like Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs, are challenging records that push the idea of what an ‘album’ can be, by removing the idea of the ‘pop song’ from it, and replacing it short vignettes or sketches that quickly move from one to the next. A Quiet Farwell is a sound collage because it, too, removes the idea of the ‘pop song,’ but what it replaces it with is anchored down by a cut and paste aesthetic. It’s full of short vignettes and sketches, but tracks often end abruptly as they began, with one colliding head first into the next.

The word ‘jarring’ doesn’t even really begin to describe what it’s like listening to this record. It’s strange and unnerving, but so incredibly captivating at the same time. Disembodied samples are pitch shifted or stretched out until the sound they are making is beyond disconcerting, but you can’t bear to pull yourself away from it—as a sharp contrast, there are moments that are surprisingly infectious in their execution, brimming with memorable, though terribly short, guest appearances from a cavalcade of voices.
There are moments when it is all of these things at the same time—one breathtaking, visceral collision that finds the space between the gruesome and the beautiful.

 A Quiet Farwell opens with a heavily distorted sample of a voice that proclaims “THE WORLD IS COMING TO AN END”—it’s a jubilant voice, though, pulled from an old soul song, and this is a thing that Marsalis does throughout the record—almost every distended (yet discernable) sample that he has chopped up and manipulated is something surprisingly negative or somber: “I love you more when it’s over,” you hear on “Fred Hampton’s Door, Farewell Sassy”; or “Deep shadows surround me,” stretched until it couldn’t be any slower, on the segue track “Treachery of Memory.”

In contrast, though, the last sample you hear is a voice saying, “The world is changing,” pulled from the closing track, “Two Thousand Eighteen, Bye,” which is, perhaps, meant to provide just a small amount of hope as the album resolves.

It should come as no surprise that something like A Quiet Farwell is an album that, at its core, is about a lot of different things, created through a number of different sounds. It owes a lot to rap music and hip-hop as a culture, in general, but its restlessness, fearlessness, and complexities are the influence of jazz music—coupling all of that with the R&B and soul records referenced and scattered throughout, it seems like a mistake to call something this stark a ‘celebratory’ record, but it is, much like the other material created by Marsalis when he was still working with Standing On The Corner, a reflection and celebration of black heritage.

It should also, at this point, 800 words in, that A Quiet Farwell is a challenging and demanding listen. That restless spirit and the complex design are great, yes, but all of that does as an awful lot of a listener. It’s not the kind of album you casually throw on—you’re doing yourself, and it, a disservice if that’s how you choose to listen. It’s not the kind of album that really even lends itself well to anything casual at all—there are no ‘singles’ that you can pick out, though there are moments—very fleeting, beautiful moments—that are more accessible than others. You have to listen from beginning to end, and you really have to pay attention while you do it.

Structurally, as you can imagine, A Quiet Farwell never settles into a steady pace; it burns slowly as it opens, through the spooky “11/28/55 Ttrabul,” which happens to be one of the album’s most interestingly produced tracks—while a slowed down voice repeats the world “trouble,” rapper Medhane can be heard in the distance, delivering a verse; buried low in the mix, it’s a disorienting feeling—like he’s somewhere else in the building, and you are pressing your ear to the wall, attempting to make out what he’s saying.

Near the final third, the album temporarily shifts into darker territory following the short, spoken word piece about a bad dream where the planet’s poles have shifted. The voice, recalling her dream, says that “everybody was just kind of waiting” before the piece cuts off completely and a demonic, low voice yells “DIE.” This is followed by some of the album’s more puzzling, unsettling compositions, before it switches gears again to head toward its conclusion.

Near the end of last year, I was introduced in a round about way to the work of Livingston Matthews—an Alabama born rapper and singer who, among other aliases, performs under the name Pink Siifu; and it was through Matthews that I discovered the work of Max Allen, a.k.a. Maxo, who is responsible for one of my favorite records of the year.

Both Allen and Matthews make guest appearances on A Quiet Farwell—maybe I’m biased but I feel like their contributions are among the best pieces within the album as a whole, and it’s because of them that I was even made aware of Marsalis, Standing On the Corner, and this project. Prior to the release of A Quiet Farwell, both Allen and Livingston began sharing parts of the project’s accompanying visual components via their respective Instagram accounts—the experimental short films, like the album itself, are fascinating and compelling.   

Matthews arrives in the album’s final third, on what winds up being the album’s longest piece—the two part “Off Me! ‘The Wake.” The first part of the is built around a heavy, distorted, and stuttering beat, along side a somber sample of a saxophone—Matthews’ contribution doesn’t so much take a backseat to the focus being on the musical arrangement, but his vocals—hypnotically delivering lines in a near breathless stream of conscious flow—are buried underneath the layers of rumbling bass and the howling saxophone. Part two, however, is drastically different—featuring a dusty sounding drum machine beat and electric guitar, it wouldn’t sound out of place nestled within Matthews’ own effort as Pink Siifu, last year’s Ensley—an effortless, artistically leaning hybrid of soul and rap.

There are four different pieces throughout A Quiet Farwell that include the word “Smile” in the title—at first glance, the names of these tracks look like they belong on an old Sufjan Stevens record, or were written by a post-rock band. While “08/09/14, Smile #1,” featuring an energetic guest verse from Caleb Giles delivered over a chopped up, jaunty piano lick, it’s “02/26/12, Smile #2,” featuring a memorable appearance from Maxo, which is perhaps the album’s finest moment that you are able to remove, ever so slightly, from the context of the piece as a whole.

Over a far less jaunty piano sample—the pensive, reflective tone of “Smile #2” provides Allen the chance to do what he proved what, on his major label debut, he’s capable of doing the best—taking an unrelenting heartfelt and introspective turn that coasts just above the somber beat he’s been given. “Smile at the past when I see it/Sometimes shit do seem out of reach” he begins, then quickly adding, “You look close, you could really see your past on repeat.”

There is a long, difficult, bleak shadow that Marsalis and his stable of collaborators cast over the entirety of A Quiet Farwell, and it’s a cycle of songs that, underneath the density of its metaphors as well as its production style, asks a lot of questions but opts to provide, little, if any, answers in the end. The second to last track, “THE MESSAGE,” aside from featuring, of all things, a slowed down sample of “Burn,” by Usher Raymond, and before exploding into a cacophonic dissonance, there’s a heavily manipulated and vocoded voice that pleads, “No mater how hard I try, nothing seems to work.”

The album ends, briefly, with a sample that states, “The world is changing,” but offers no explanation as to if it’s changing for the better, or for the worse.

A Quiet Farwell 2016-2018 is the kind of album that you want to share with anyone who is willing to listen but due to its nature, it is simply just not something that everyone is going to ‘get.’ It’s a stunning artistic statement—one that is haunting, bold, dense, and thought provoking, capturing the very essence of existence—the place where the beautiful and the ugly converge.

A Quiet Farwell 2016-2018 is out now via the Slauson Malone Bandcamp page.