LA-based Baths’ Will Wiesenfeld’s pent up frustrations over artistic identity and, more viscerally, a frustrating case of E coli have rendered his new album Obsidian a far cry from the post-chillwave glee of Cerulean and tracks like Aminals. Instead, while the songs on Obsidian are danceable, Wiesenfeld veers away from being a DJ and towards being a quintessential studio electronic composer, ultimately making an album as dark and broken as its coal-miner black cover.
Wiesenfeld has always had an almost-falsetto, quivering voice (especially on his stunning minimal piano cover of LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends). While this voice manifests itself greatly on standout accessible dance-pop tracks like Miasma Sky, Wiesenfeld goes a bit deeper on opener Worsening, as he (semi-laughably) sings, “Birth was like a fat black tongue / Dripping tar and dung and dye / Slowly into my shivering eyes.” On Worsening (and on Obsidian in general), you’re best to almost ignore Wiesenfeld’s fatalist poetry and instead concentrate on the song’s complex musicality, as it opens with a chorus moaning over cacophonous, seemingly divergent parts that ultimately form something cohesive. Same goes for Ironworks; if Victorian love affairs aren’t your thing and come across to you as a gimmicky way to situate a very contemporary-sounding album in a style-over-substance time period in history, simply pay attention to the music, the interplay between the strings, the time-signature-independent beat, and the instrumentality and tone of Wiesenfeld’s voice.
Sometimes, the music on Obsidian doesn’t adequately mask Wiesenfeld’s “teenage Ben Gibbard is in a dark place” lyrics, as on Ossuary, whose straightforward, sped-up beat doesn’t noisily distract you from “introduction to college poetry” lines like “Death pirouettes through the flicker of the wick”. And occasionally, you get the sense that Wiesenfeld is trying too hard to distract, as the beat on Incompatible almost sounds like electronic ants enveloping a computer. Occasionally, however, everything falls into place: change of pace Earth Death effectively combines metal and computer beats, its distorted guitar lingering in the background and eventually dominated by its pulsating drum beat. Even better, No Eyes combines a pounding festival-friendly beat with the devastatingly hilarious repeated refrain of “It is not a matter of if you mean it / But it is only a matter of come and fuck me.” Call it Nine Inch Nails’ Closer for the passive-aggressive.
Baths is often compared to Mike Hadreas’ Perfume Genius, but, overall, Hadreas’ music tends to hit like a brick wall due to its lyrical relatability and simplicity and musical minimalism. On Obsidian, it seems that Wiesenfeld is trying to avoid addressing his emotions head on by hiding them behind effects-laden beats, as captivating as those beats sometimes are. Or, in other words, he’s substituting musical complexity for emotional, lyrical complexity, not attempting to address the layers of his feelings hand-in-hand with their musical manifestations. Perhaps his cover of All My Friends is so good because it’s essentially a Perfume Genius song, while, in contrast, Obsidian’s sexual laments and frustration translate into musical frustration.
The second half of hopeful track No Past Lives is a silver lining on a black album, but you’ve all but given up on the track after its first half’s completely unnecessary glitchiness. And closer Inter is a ’70s pop track on a rainy day, as Wiesenfeld’s layered voice, now falsetto, provides closure to an album that did not come before it: it’s a great song on the wrong album, undeniably out of Obsidian’s context. Ultimately, Inter only solidifies Obsidian as an album with independent parts that are quite inspired on their own but only form a seemingly infinitely confused whole.