Even if no other ambient album this year will surpass Mountains’ stunning Centralia, Portland-based ambient recording artist Matthew Cooper’s latest deserves consideration alongside it. With Nightmare Ending, Cooper, who goes by the moniker Eluvium, has bounced back after 2010’s Similes, the disappointing follow up to 2007’s excellent Copia. Nightmare Ending, like Cooper’s best work, combines orchestral shoegaze with ambient piano-led tracks to create a shimmering, worthwhile listen from front to back.
Immediately, Nightmare Ending envelops you in its pristine sadness: opener Don’t Get Any Closer is appropriately titled, because you simply can’t get any closer to an already intimate song. A repeated, minimal piano motif is slowly washed away by drones, all the while creating the perfect music to soundtrack a private funeral. The sound is not nightmarish, however; the piano chords instead accept the fate of the deceased.
Warm, a more distorted drone-based orchestral track which follows, is therefore somewhat equivalent to the foggy ride up to heaven and the afterlife. Overall, while many other ambient musicians, from Mountains to Motion Sickness Of Time Travel, recall tangible visual associations and cues (vistas and cities and space and time, respectively) with their music, Eluvium, especially on Nightmare Ending, elicits emotions or broad feelings of hope and despair, giving the album a vague sense of religiosity or spirituality. Best of all, because this sense is vague, Nightmare Ending is immensely relatable.
Moreover, often, a truly great ambient musician is able to not only build a track over long periods of time, but to make the most out of short interludes, as Cooper does successfully on the two-minute, pounding, relentless shoegaze of By The Rails and, towards the end of Nightmare Ending, the three-minute pseudo-musique-concréte track Strange Arrivals. At the opposite end, Cooper is a master of longer tracks, as on Don’t Get Any Closer and Unknown Variation, which is essentially a foggier, longer, better version of Warm.
And just when you think Cooper has almost become a jack of all trades, he finally conquers the ambient pop track, saving the best for last: closer Happiness features the gentle, soothing, pop-friendly voice of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan. “If I could push dark thoughts away,” starts Kaplan, providing a wistfully striking contrast to the sadness that defines most of Nightmare Ending. What was so unsuccessful on Similes was Cooper’s distracting vocal ambient pop; on Nightmare Ending, Happiness is instead smartly placed at the end of an album that uses “pop” sparingly, and it represents going to sleep hoping for good dreams as opposed to closing your eyes fearing nightmares. Happiness combines quintessential ambient piano-led repetition with slight, distorted guitars and Kaplan’s unmistakable voice. Cooper has admitted that he wasn’t sure whether Happiness was supposed to be a statement piece or a smaller, detailed work, but he surely knew that it was the perfect and only way to end a beautifully sad album.
No matter how many times you listen to Nightmare Ending, you will probably never figure out why it was given its title: sad or happy, deaths and endings are not treated on the album as nightmarish, but as natural to humanity as is emotion. It’s this comforting conclusion that Cooper has reached on Nightmare Ending that leads one to think that he might be able to tweak and refine the ideas he explores on the record to create something truly great in the future. For now, however, it’s worth it to bask in what Nightmare Ending has to offer. Title aside, you’ll certainly sleep peacefully.