Music Reviews
The Soul of All Natural Things

Linda Perhacs The Soul of All Natural Things

(Asthmatic Kitty) Rating - 6/10

If you’ve heard of this album, you’ve doubtless heard all about the (quite possibly record-breaking) 44-year gap since Linda Perhacs’ 1970 debut Parallelograms. You may not have been previously aware of Parallelograms’ existence: it was virtually overlooked upon its initial release, but has achieved a snowballing cult popularity as a kind of spiritual predecessor to “freak-folk” and New Weird America. It sounds like the plot of a Nick Hornby novel. Parallelograms is a favourite among No Ripcord staff; we’ve fawned over it on several podcasts, but nobody would have expected Perhacs to have returned to music – indeed, she’s spent the 44-year interim in the same line of work as a dental hygienist.

Perhacs’ voice has (as you’d expect) lost its richness since she was 26 – her voice is too sweet to pull off the likes of her aggressively seductive performance on Parallelograms' Paper Mountain Man. Her songwriting tends to mould itself around her aging voice’s limitations rather than test them, so her comfort zone is texturally serene. But it isn’t without its hints of psychedelia, subtler than on Parallelograms but with a modern studio in which to explore an impressive spread of new ideas, clearly influenced by wide and open-minded listening habits. She uses echoes liberally, sometimes fragments of reversed sound, like a sonic hall of mirrors, with particular effect on haunted, nursery-rhyme round Prisms of Glass. I daresay the album’s cinematic qualities are linked to Perhacs’ rare sensation for musical material – she has said: “I have a synesthesia-type capacity, since childhood, and I can see and feel and hear things that would not be the average” (which is why the title track of Parallelograms sounds like abstract expressionism as music). Children sounds like it could have been in a live-action Disney musical, its melody so entrancingly simple and sweet. But Perhacs never swamps the sentiment’s sincerity in showy orchestral parts – it has a Sufjan Stevens-esque sense of restraint; of sparing indulgence in lush strings while maintaining a sense of vague unease.

But when these themes are expressed lyrically the album is lacking; her hooks suffer from show-don’t-tell problems, which is great if the music does the showing – but instead the climax to Intensity (“Endless intensity / Endless intensity” through multiple key changes) sounds tame, where I long for it to Hulk Out with St. Vincent-like unhingement. A missed opportunity: up until then its propulsive, techno-inspired night-prowling groove had been brimming with mysterious potential.

Its second half recapitulates more feebly on the moods developed in the first, and its weaknesses become clearer. Parallelograms was brilliant because it felt consistently, implacably unsettling despite its beauty; several songs don’t do enough to flesh out those subversive undertones. Immunity begins promisingly with its hand-drum percussion and In Rainbows-era Radiohead style guitar lilt, but Perhacs’ lyrics are steeped in clichés and no-brainer rhyming couplets: “When we’re crying in the night / And we’re feeling full of fright / Help us listen for your love / Your love your love your love”. And in the piano-ballad lull on When Things Are True Again: “The world is spinning spinning spinning / Spinning spinning spinning like it’s out of control”. There’s a lot of repetition on this album, and it’s not Astral Weeks repetition – it sounds like filler. But the concluding moments capture some unexplored magic: Song of the Planets folds kaleidoscopically in on itself, a patchwork of reversed sonic textures alongside a monologue by co-producer Chris Price, which takes Perhacs’ spiritual leanings and condenses them into prosaic clarity. “Still, you laugh contemptuously when told that love shall save the world”, he deadpans, and Perhacs’ whispering ambience distils momentarily into a fleeting reflection of a song, before dissipating back into silence.

Aside from a handful of inspired moments like this, the album goes the way of most songwriters carrying on past their sell-by date (other than Scott Walker, of course) in its tendencies towards triteness, both in its lyrics and its often straightforward melodies. Briefly I wondered if that’s half the reason for that tendential songwriting-career arc: you have to start moulding trite lyrics around your voice if it's no longer able to deliver a convincingly intense performance. (Unless you’re Scott Walker). But there are marks of the beguiling idiosyncrasies which belatedly endeared Parallelograms to so many of us. The Soul of All Natural Thingsliner notes contain reproductions of Perhacs’ recording and arrangement directions. Most artists would risk spoiling some of the magic by revealing these details, but Perhacs’ synesthesic watercolour waves and expressionist note-fragments only add to her mystique. Although the record’s themes are well-worn, her approach to sound remains pure.