Robert Stillman: “Machine’s Song”

I wouldn’t quite call it Steampunk Folk music, exactly, though that’s really not far off. I guess the best way to describe Robert Stillman’s music– and the music of Machine’s Song in particular– is by using his own words. Stillman refers to his work as the sound of the Archaic Future, really a pretty good descriptor of music that makes a deliberate look over the shoulder to a world it sees through the tint of sepia– a world that never quite existed, though, at least not as it’s rendered here, and points toward a certain avant futurism as much as it does the glow of nostalgia.

I give a lot of credit to Stillman right off the top, for what he’s doing here is something that sidesteps almost any other “roots music” out there today by revealing a quite different– but no less valid– understanding of what that term really means. Stillman is a Brit who carries a dogged obsession with the notion of Americana, but his definition of said music goes past Dylan, past even country music and the blues, and instead embraces a pre-jazz conception of folk and parlor music that seems to me to be largely ignored these days. Jolie Holland embraced it a bit on her lovely album Springtime Can Kill You, for instance, but her interest was more in modest dance tunes and ballads. Stillman conceives of this music as something grander, and what he does on Machine’s Song is amazingly full-blooded considering exactly how Stillman went about making it.

Specifically, Stillman is an instrumental composer who works a lot in the one-man-band idiom, playing the piano with his hands and drums with his feet; that’s how this song cycle was written and how the basics of it were recorded, before the artist fleshed it out with all the appropriate bells and whistles (literally). The music has a lot of the creaky, self-sustained spontaneity that its origins would suggest, and yet what renders this an immensely evocative and sublime listen is that the mechanics of it are never really the focus. One does not listen and think only about how Stillman made it; one things almost entirely of the compositions themselves, and of the myriad ideas that they suggest, rather shrewdly.

It’s an album that rather neatly turns nostalgia on its head, and considers the ideals of an antiquated America in a different light. To that end, Stillman structures Machine’s Song in a way that invites contemplative juxtaposition on the part of the listener; a good chunk of this eight-song sequence is devoted to pairs, first a Song (in the best and fullest sense) and then a corresponding Collage, sequenced in just that way. I am not normally one for “sound collages,” I confess, but here Stillman ties these more experimental pieces so closely to the notion of Song itself that I feel they’re more extensions of the more conventional bits. The Collage follows the Song and deconstructs it, without losing grip of its important themes and suggested images. And so we have a song like “Broadwar,” sort of a tipsy but determined gait that moves with purpose and a sense of grandeur (think of, say, an Aaron Copeland song), followed by “Broadwar Retreat,” which gradually takes apart the preceding song’s theme and uses horns and percussion to simulate the mechanics of a train. This may, indeed, be the machine’s song– a sound of loneliness to further muddle the mixed emotions of the tune that came before it. (Perhaps also an on-its-head spin of the very American fascination with trains, travel, and the freedom to just up and go.)

And indeed, the emotions here are deep, rich, and sublimely evocative; Stillman brings to this work not just the hiss of the locomotive but also, say, fairground organs and even some moments that suggest dance tunes, all of it suggesting an idyllic world– only, not really. It’s a melancholy work, in many respects, recalling, perhaps, the work of Van Dyke Parks at his most inward-gazing (and divorced of any sun-kissed Wilson-isms), or even of the sinister, arcane sounds invoked on some of Tom Waits’ albums. It’s beautiful music that engages both the emotions and the intellect, and seems to exist at least partly in the shadows of memory, which is, perhaps, a bit part of what makes it such a rousing delight.

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