The Brooklyn artist's Hyperdub debut was an anxious but essential listen for Lauren Martin.
Laurel Halo’s ‘Quarantine’ is one of the most personal releases of 2012 and, perhaps inevitably, one of the most testing too. In weaving Laurel’s vocals through twelve almost entirely beatless tracks, the LP is an occasionally brutal exercise in the controlled demolition of pop sensibilities, and manages to construct a narrative from a very particular stylistic temperament without becoming tiresome. The hypnagogic production balances on a knife-edge between complete bodily detachment in its evocation of cyberpunk aesthetics and the lingering appeal of the flesh in Laurel’s own presence, which is at turns soothing and confrontational. I say confrontational in the most physical sense too, because ‘Quarantine’ has provoked multiple reactions in me.
My own first listen looked like this: I sat on one hand and rested my head on the other, with closed eyes and a crooked neck, and felt twinges of anxiety come and – not go. It took three or four attempts to listen to it from start to finish and each time I forced myself to go back to the beginning, I felt it pushing against me. It all came across as slightly painful. I wanted to figure out what about it made me so anxious and in a detached sort of way, to consider it as a cohesive, full-length body of work. In this sense, ‘Quarantine’ demands time and attention in a way that is almost exhausting.
I couldn’t picture who I’d play it to – or where I’d play it – in its entirety. ‘Quarantine’ was an intensely private record for me.
Once out of the immediate private experience of listening, for me, it went from a curiosity to borderline problematic. Even though I was becoming gradually more fascinated by it I hesitated in conversation to say that I “enjoyed” it. The forcefulness of those first listens convinced me at the time that it was well executed but demanding, and I was unsure of how best to approach it. It wasn’t the kind of LP I could imagine sharing with anyone. I couldn’t picture who I’d play it to – or where I’d play it – in its entirety. ‘Quarantine’ was an intensely private record for me when I first heard it and it remains so, but I’ve now come to realise that the intensity with which it forces me into an uncomfortable and introverted state of mind is exactly what makes it so brilliant.
‘Quarantine’ occupies a peculiar space in large part because of Laurel herself. She is its absolute physical centre yet seems to recoil from contact, trying to be as deliberately unnerving, detached – yet as magnetic – as possible. Having made a conscious effort not to digitally alter her voice during the recording process the end result is in turn beautiful and jarring. At the album’s mid-point, Wow swells and contracts with the sound of a child’s cries melting into the keys and as the distant rumbles of percussion on Carcass roll in we’re met with Laurel at her most visceral; her range stretched to its limits, croaking and straining under the weight of some unbearable private experience.
Listening to ‘Quarantine’ feels less of an invitation into her world and more of an intrusion born of masochistic curiosity.
As Nerve and Light + Space move more overtly into the realms of dreamy sci-fi pop Carcass on reflection becomes the album’s point of bodily transcendence. The body as carcass functions as both instrument for and bulwark against the possibilities of her voice, and so to abandon it was for Laurel to drift higher into the ethereal reaches of Light + Space, a journey through her own physical limits and potential. The more I listen to her sing the more I’m convinced that she is fearless. She commands absolute control and precision whilst I back into a corner from the sheer force of how raw and immediate she sounds.
Those quick inhales, catches of the throat and wavering pitches and intonations of her voice are less layered into and more thrust upon the bubbling movements of the tracks, encouraging you to not only confront the vulnerability and primality of the human voice but also the extent to which we can find beauty within it. I see no way nor have any desire to separate Laurel from the LP and examine it as an autonomous piece of work because as confronted as I am by her, the confrontation is an absolute necessity.
What I’ve come to realise through her is that there can be precious little safety and warmth in the personal. Often when you hear someone recall the first time they heard a now-beloved album, they will say that it “spoke” to them. You became enveloped in the private world of the artist, and you were welcome to stay for as long as you wanted to listen. Not with Laurel. Listening to ‘Quarantine’ feels less of an invitation into her world and more of an intrusion born of masochistic curiosity. It forces you to be uncomfortably aware of the loaded implications of the private space within. I feel as if I’ve caught the artist unawares, in the midst of a private moment – until she looks over her shoulder, to make direct, blunt eye contact. In ‘Quarantine’, I am not welcome, but I can’t pull my gaze away.
Graphic design courtesy of Luke Corpe.