She's Not There: WU LYF, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, And The Value Of Absence

Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

Every year, ambitious young bands find new ways—fascinating, puerile, ingenious—to play the Internet, and in 2011, one of the most captivating, effective ways to do so involved near-silence. A cluster of breakthrough bands, WU LYF and Unknown Mortal Orchestra among them, caused a huge publicity ripple online by pointedly refusing to exist there—or deciding to have an online presence so cryptic as to frustrate any desire for even the most basic information. In this scenario, a band's lack of Google hits are a direct measure of its tantalizing mysteriousness. If the Internet is a musical instrument, this was its version of John Cage's "4:33."

In WU and UMO's cases, the trick succeeded wildly. WU LYF had already built a passionate local following in Manchester on the strength of their ragged, fervent indie rock. But by refusing to do mundane things—answering telephone calls from Michel Gondry, parting with free copies of their demo, sustaining a web site—they kicked the speculative frenzy up into high gear. The Portland psych-rock weirdos Unknown Mortal Orchestra, meanwhile, were less prickly and rebellious, but in the earliest days they were nothing more than a serenely inscrutable Bandcamp page full of ear-grabbing songs. Discovering anything further about their creators proved nearly impossible until months later.

This faux-cultivation of mystery makes sense for bands looking for quick and easy ways to distinguish themselves: In an era of constant, ceaseless glut, set yourself apart by being hard to find. It's a marketing technique with real-world echoes in 21st-century speakeasies, or nightclubs that you need a password to enter. There's an easy exclusivity grab to being "anonymous," and cachet to be gained from appearing "above it all," that is as old as culture itself.

However, there's a catch: for the anonymity gimmick to pan out for you, your music has to feel like a revelation worth waiting for. UMO and WU LYF played the card successfully because that mystery turned out to feed neatly back into their music. WU LYF's dark debut Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, with its gasped, unintelligible exhortations, felt like recently unearthed caveman liturgical music, while UMO's eerily out-of-time self-titled debut appeared to have wandered, beaming, out of the desert, origins unknown.


PJ Harvey, "The Words That Maketh Murder"

It's entirely unclear, however, how this strategy will serve a band like the Manchester outfit The Slow Down. Take a minute to listen to "SEX," their only available song: it will become immediately clear that they did not form a band to shun the spotlight's glare. These are people whose only birthright is featured slots in dramedies and soap commercials, thanks to their writing the kind of resonantly cheesy insta-anthem that can pay royalty checks for decades. And yet, this is the route they've chosen: their own publicist claims to know only that they are from Manchester. They have already changed their name once. (They were once called Drive Like I Do.) They may have already changed their name again. again. The Slow Down play the very best kind of expertly crafted, achingly radio-ready mall emo, and it is impossible to imagine what they could gain from this particular promotion strategy. As a friend quipped to me: "How are they supposed to meet girls?"

Should more bands like The Slow Down adopt the anonymity gimmick, huffy declarations that "Not having your own website is so 2011" will probably follow. They've missed the most basic component of the entire trick: People crave genuine mystery, not simple inaccessibility. The first is impossible without the second, but the second without the first is just plain annoying.

The appeal of this mystery can go deeper than cheap marketing trick, though. Some of the year's best, most resonant, and beloved records—PJ Harvey's Let England Shake and Kate Bush's 50 Words From Snow, for example—derive some of their considerable power from their sense of remoteness from our squabbling indie Conversation circa 2011. Kate Bush has literally been compared to the Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman in reviews of her new, gorgeous record; PJ Harvey, meanwhile, conjured images of a 19th-century witch.

Some of these comparisons come from the free-associative excitement (or foolishness) that comes with music-reviewing, of course, and both Bush and Harvey's records encourage you to think about them this way in one way or another. But it also testifies to how dropping in out of the metaphorical blue has its own imaginative rewards. Both Shake and Snow seemed to reach out of time and grip listeners with a bony hand and a sense that they were somehow a respite from the music already rattling noisily around the Internet.

All this points toward a yearning for undiscovered terrain. The Internet has laid open infinity: spending hours, or years, being swallowed up in its embrace is one of modern life's most pervasive sensations. Most of us know the feeling of opening a tab to find out something specific and finding ourselves, hours later, elbow-deep in, say, Serbian rap YouTube playlists, or blogs devoted to Appalachian field-hollering. It is disorienting, glorious, and often discomfiting to stride across continents and centuries in seconds, to kick down the door of any furtive subculture and sap its secrets immediately, without any of the painstaking secret-handshake cultish behavior that built the culture in the first place. When knowledge can be yours with little to no effort, sometimes it's hard not to feel a distant pang for the unknowable. This is why secrets—even manufactured ones—seem exciting, and why mystery, inaccessibility, and plain old absence are suddenly rich with fresh allure: They provide a temporary palliative to the digital loneliness of too much information.

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