The music writer Bob Palmer once described "a fusion of music and poetry accomplished at a very high emotional temperature." He called it "a gigantic field of feeling…something enduring, something that could be limitless."
Palmer was talking about the Blues. But all I can think about is AU.
Like all waves, it keeps on coming. AU's third album, Both Lights, is a recurring dream. Eleven songs made by the Portland, Oregon-based duo Luke Wyland and Dana Valatka, it's a story of Time. Three years to be exact: since their critically-acclaimed 2008 album Verbs and its 2009 EP evolution Versions, there's been a long exhale. A little defiance of the double-speed countdown of the indie hype clock. And a hell of a lot of living. Turn it on. More than a mere accompaniment, it's a gleaming mirror. It's an exaltation, an exhalation, a monument of extreme composition, the child of collaboration and isolation, a preamble to a wild live show, a statue intact in the violent wind of art and commerce, and, simply, a record about love. It's for itself, and, in being that, it's an album that can be understood like a person. "It's the topography of me," says Wyland. So you follow the coordinates.
The record begins with "Epic" -- count it among the world's greatest lead tracks. Complete with earth-cracking saxophones by man-machine Colin Stetson, "Epic" defines ascension -- from the slow motion of an Oregon sunrise to a '67 Barracuda barreling off a bridge. It's a thesis statement for an album that began as a series of improvisations in Wyland's attic, a one-man tug of war with love, loss, pain, anger, and desire. Wyland calls "Epic" a "real re-introduction to the band" and it encompasses that extreme confidence. It sets the tone for Both Lights, illuminating the frantic energy that drives AU, on and off stage.
Titled like a directive, second track "Get Alive" marks the first reveal of Wyland's soaring vocals. Multi-tentacled, he's playing banjo and keys as Valatka turns his drum kit into a veritable mode of transportation. He's crossing over. You can hear the cymbals bending mid-air. Nick Sweet and Alex Milsted, who make appearances throughout the album on brass, keep step up the mountainside. Portland's Holland Andrews is waiting at the top for a climactic last-verse duet: "I've been alive for so long, you've been dead all these years, if love is what we wait for, I've made you wait." "Crazy Idol" hovers at the peak, a hymn in classic AU style, the deep breath before the dive into the machine-like, breakout-dance-jam "OJ". "Coded language, hidden thoughts, a shroud of technological wonder…almost a subliminal expression of my insect state." Wyland's description of "OJ" extends into a laid-bare definition of AU. Both Lights is a homemade album. It's about breaking up. It's about finding oneself, again and again. It's about the struggle to make what you make and give it to the world. It's the glowing spectrum of carnival lights and it's the pitch-black wooded walk home. It's your heart racing.
By "The Veil", the last song on side A, you are breathing at just the right pace to accompany the piano, a first-take improvisation from beginning to end, recorded on a long summer day. Flip the record. "Solid Gold", unveiled this past December on a limited edition 7", ushers in side B and marks Colin Stetson's second appearance on the album. You can feel it. Like the fight song for an imaginary sport, this single defines AU's transcendent freneticism and abundant tenderness. It permeates everything they touch. It sets the stage for the supreme freak-out ecstasy of "Why I Must" and the continuous three-song suite that closes out the album by opening it up even further. You can hear guest vocalist Sarah Winchester's voice tremble on "Old Friend," an ode to a singer who's been on every AU album: her.
In its eleven songs, Both Lights constructs new sonic and psychological terrain for the listener. It unfolds like a story, both in its hyper-attentive, graceful, and often fierce instrumentation -- the language of Wyland and Valatka -- and in its heated and naked emotion. "This is all inner struggle, inner growth, inner seeking," said Wyland. Set to music, life sounds like AU.