NINE NOCTURNES
Jandek’s The Song of Morgan

Jandek has long been willfully shrouded in an aura of mystery, but recent events suggest we may have reached a crucial turning point as the artist approaches the autumn of his career. Some 70 releases deep into Jandek’s challenging catalogue, strand after strand of thickly layered yarn has begun to unravel around his perplexing musical project. It began in 2004 with his public unveiling in Glasgow, gathered steam over the last decade with a gradual proliferation of live performances, and came full circle earlier this year, when he referred to himself in the first person in an interview with—of all places—Pitchfork. To hear Jandek refer to himself as a “phenomenon” was nothing short of jarring. How could he be so self-aware? How dare he! Still, those of us disappointed by his public emergence were probably never in it for the music to begin with.

Jandek’s The Song of Morgan (Corwood Industries)

The Song of Morgan (Corwood Industries, 2013) is, by virtue of its length and ambitious format, instantly a touchstone in the Jandek canon. The nine-disc album, with each disc labeled a “Nocturne”—“Nocturne One,” “Nocturne Two,” etc.—comes neatly packaged in a box emblazoned with Jandek’s young, chubby, sepia-toned visage. Each disc measures nearly an hour in length, all featuring the Representative from Corwood on solo piano. There is some precedent for Jandek’s solo piano work. The title track of his 1999 release The Beginning featured a 15-minute piece of mostly atonal clutter—his first recorded use of the instrument. Twice, in 2009, he played an entire live set unaccompanied on piano, and he has since played piano with accompaniment during several of his live shows, including his most recent appearance in New York City, in 2012. Nevertheless, for many fans the album will be their first large scale exposure to this most intimate of arrangements.

Upon first listen, The Song of Morgan sounds unlike anything we’ve ever heard from a Jandek record. The first disc is one of the best of the set and eagerly introduces the structure of the nocturnes. It is Frederic Chopin with whom we most closely associate the nocturne—a composition, usually for solo piano, evocative of the nighttime and its intoxicating dreaminess—but it is Erik Satie whose influence is most apparent on Disc One. Satie did, in fact, compose a short series of nocturnes in 1919, and it’s hard to imagine Jandek has never heard these lovely reveries. But as much as the first disc may suggest stylistic influences, it is still, patently, a Jandek record, and it sets a pattern that the remaining discs will follow. It presents a theme, draws upon that theme for between 10 and 20 minutes, and then ventures off into sporadic digressions, sometimes reengaging the original theme and other times fading into the ether. Jandek’s playing here is surprisingly lucid and more technically adept than one might imagine, and the mood, though at times unexpectedly buoyant, often recalls that ever-present sense of wistfulness captured so clearly on so many Jandek records.

Disc Five is the best entry in the collection and one of the most accomplished works to emerge from Jandek’s robust oeuvre. It starts in much the same fashion as so many of the other discs, subtly searching for a theme and gradually building into a fully-formed idea before eventually digressing and reconvening. But what is unique about this disc is that it is particularly joyful. Around 14 minutes in the piece blossoms into something quite beautiful—the first time I can ever remember listening to a Jandek record and feeling unrestrained happiness. While the peak may be short, it packs quite a punch. The meanderings throughout the second half, though interesting in their own right, never quite reach that happy place again until the final movement, when Jandek brings us back home to the same lovely theme presented earlier. It is certainly a reflection of this hopeful new era in Jandek’s career, when he appears almost eager to reveal himself to his fans on a more intimate level than ever before. The icy façade has melted away, the aura of mystery has subsided, and the curtain has been raised.

Disc Eight is an especially interesting entry in that it contains some of the most energized, atonal playing in the collection. While it may feel like typical Jandek behavior—something more in line with what you might expect from the artist—its place among the other selections makes it an enjoyable outlier. The final disc, however, brings everything back in form, with the second strongest segment of the entire set. This is elegant music, and its conclusion is fittingly warm and inviting. Jandek has not merely evoked Romantic composers such as Chopin and Satie with his nocturnes, he has entered a whole new era in his prolific career, one in which the persona has become secondary and the music has, more than ever, demanded to be taken seriously. Out from the shadows, Jandek looks and sounds pretty damn good.

Contributor

Christopher Nelson

CHRISTOPHER NELSON lives and works in Brooklyn.

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