Top 10 Albums of the Year: #5

Stars of the Lid - And Their Refinement of the Decline (Kranky)
I have to admit that this album didn't hit me as hard as 2001's The Tired Sounds of... and as of right now it doesn't seem to stick to my music-listening ribs as much as the multi-part suites that made up a great bulk of Tired Sounds. This is not to say it's not a truly welcome return after some fully realized and fully excellent solo releases (from Adam Wiltzie's Dead Texan and Brian McBride under his own name), all the more welcome because of its double-disc length. And for me there's something, something that keeps me coming back to this album, something beyond the album's carefully incubated and plainly obvious beauty. Something gliding underneath the surface.
Talking about the songs themselves is a bit tough, since the point of Stars of the Lid albums has always seemed to be the collective effect of each composition working together. Strings swell and roll and sing, warm pads glow and recede, a trumpet or horn makes a noticeable yet elegant accent. Each song has its own distinct melody and flow (there's not much rhythm to be found here), but things tend to run into each other, especially if you're not listening close, but that's probably ok. This is music pretty clearly designed for quieter moods and / or sleep.
I'll try to speak of some of the highlights anyway. In "Articulate Silences Part 1" ambient textures and tones come in and out of focus, somewhat lulling the listener when, in the final minute, heart-wrenching string chords pull the ground from beneath you and leave you in a slow-motion deep-space free fall. After a lovely intro, "Don't Bother, They're Here" moves into a slowly repeating tone progression, like piano or chimes being played in the surprisingly warm heart of a glacier. "The Daughters of Quiet Minds" and "Tippy's Demise" both share perfectly evocative string arrangements. This adds an ideal accent to the aquatic organ of "Daughters" and along with some slight clarinet, creates one of the more visceral and truly sad arrangements Stars of the Lid have recorded in "Tippy's Demise."
And Their Refinement of the Decline is just as patient and beautiful as every other Stars of the Lid release, and further cements their status as a duo who is absolutely at the pinnacle of their craft. Personally, the songs here communicate a deep understanding of loss, death, absence, and distance. It's music that comforts the listener in its seeming understanding of the terror of the unknown, the magnitude of love, the weight of failure. But its not about despair, it's about confronting big things and dark times, not necessarily because we're brave, but because we must. (I listened to this album when the family dog was put down, not to get weepy.)
Anyway, Stars of the Lid are supposed to be touring the US this coming year, and that's a thrilling prospect. Also worth mentioning is Carte-de-Visite, which collects some rare b-sides and unreleased songs from various album recording sessions, and makes for a great addendum to Refinement.

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