Decomposure: At Home and Unaffected

The combination of singing and jittery breakbeats on Decomposure's At Home and Unaffected initially sounds a bit jarring, especially when Caleb Mueller's 2004 debut Taking Things Apart eschewed vocals altogether. But once the surprise subsides, the sound not only seems palatable but downright appealing and the concept fresh. A key reason for the positive impression is that Mueller uses his frenetic arsenal of bleeps, whirrs, and stutter for eminently musical rather than random ends—would that some of his electronic brethren were as focused in their music-making. The second song “At Home Part One,” exemplifies the principle perfectly. The piece is constructed from a nonstop array of what he calls 'junk sound' (“little clips and slices of sound from aborted recording sessions, spontaneous field recordings, mistakes, old and forgotten archives, …”) yet once assembled assumes compelling musical form. Hear too how convincingly he converts found materials in “Buttons and Switches” into percolating percussive patterns. Mueller also never merely layers breakbeat clatter onto his songs but rather the songs grow directly from those sounds; furthermore, though the breakbeat style might at times recall an artist like Squarepusher, Mueller's music is far more focused.

In addition, he wisely deploys contrast, not only within a given song (the loud and soft episodes in “Disconnect”) but between songs too (compare the delicate piano melodies and rustic melodeon—an accordion-organ instrument—tones in “Piano/Melodeon” to the roaring clatter of “Whose Side Are You On?”). Stylistically, there's the classic, piano-driven vocal pop of “Disconnect” but also the breakbeat funk of “Bathroom/Guitar/Piano” featuring the metronomic pluck of what sounds like (though no doubt isn't) an oud or Middle Eastern string instrument; equally exotic, “Distraction” marries a blues-funk vocal with the thrum of a tabla-fueled rhythm.

The hook-saturated “Whose Side Are You On?” opens the album at a peak with irresistibly infectious vocal melodies (especially the chorus) and a raucous backing (its sounds sourced, like most sounds on the album, from materials in Mueller's apartment—tins, bottles, boxes, plastic containers, keys, books—with the song's first sound an oven being closed). “The Center of the World” shifts the focus from pop to ambitious multi-episodic constructions. The piece begins in folk ballad mode until a gradually rising tonal mass engulfs everything as it rises to a roiling ambient blur. But then the mass quietens, allowing a simple piano melody to effect a bridge into the loud hoedown “...And Unaffected” which Mueller gradually morphs into a vocal choir. The stately 7-minute closer “The Wars” brings the album to an impressive close too. He begins by pairing a yearning vocal line and delicate piano melody with a clattering backing, and ultimately weaves multiple vocal lines into a bright chorale in the song's coda, with the instrumental backing largely fading from view, and then ends the song with solo voice and piano.

There's no great thematic mystery to the album, given the lyrical content's transparency, not to mention the generous amount of explanatory accompaniment provided by Mueller himself. As the title implies, Mueller presents a woeful portrait of the hermetic, almost solipsistic individual, safely ensconced at home, lazily entranced by a flow of TV images and willfully oblivious to the world's complexities raging outside (and for the record, in case it seems like Mueller's passing judgment from on high, he notes that the album theme is directed at him as much as anyone else).

To his credit, he resisted the temptation to pitch-shift his vocals (even though pitch is never a conspicuous issue) in keeping with his desire to “inject the imperfect and the human” into the album as much as possible. Interestingly, even though Mueller's described as a “22-year-old Canadian experimental electronic musician,” he clarifies (in his 'rules') that no computer-generated sound was used nor any complicated effects processing. Although his third rule states that “(n)o effects processing that modifies the original sound beyond recognition” will be used, sounds are often unidentifiable once they've become woven into a song's complex fabric (though not always, as evidenced by the multiple patterns of identifiable vocal sounds Mueller places in the middle of the rollicking “Beatbox”). However, sound sources often are revealed by titles like “Guitar/Trivial Pursuit” and “Buttons and Switches.”

For all its strengths, At Home and Unaffected isn't perfect. Mueller admits that he wants his music to reflect his interest in density, complexity, and texture yet that density can turn oppressive (the nonstop barrage in “At Home Part Two” becomes wearying, for example.) And, no matter how technically impressive, the jittery breakbeat style grows tiresome through overuse; by the time the incessant clatter of the tenth track, “At Home Part Two,” rolls around, you'll feel you've been adequately exposed to the style. And “Multitracked,” with its slow loping rhythms and spoken word voiceover, is an interesting experiment but not a match for the other material. But such weaknesses hardly undermine an album which has more than enough to recommend it. Though Taking Things Apart impressed in its own way, At Home and Unaffected is clearly a major step forward on many levels for Mueller's Decomposure project.

June 2005