(Temporary Residence, 2014)
If you’re going to do a quick spot comparison of Anchor, Nick Zammuto’s second full-band outing since the dissolution of his partnership with Paul de Jong as The Books, and his self-titled debut, you don’t have to look further than how the two records begin to get a sense of their differences. “YAY” opened Zammuto with a gleeful zip and trademark Books-like cut-up vocals, a celebration of sorts that found Nick breathing some fresh creative oxygen, and that at once established the release within our collective good graces. On Anchor, Zammuto seems to have forgotten he was already there – “Got to get inside your good graces” he intones on album opener, yep, “Good Graces,” a somber and airy meditation and the polar opposite of the tone of Zammuto.
[Editor’s note: Nick Zammuto has mentioned that the lyric is actually “Got to get inside her good graces,” and it’s about meeting his wife, an “unforgettable moment.” (Hopefully this aside scores some marital points for him.)]
The difference in mood and tone is palpable throughout – perhaps Anchor serves as a metaphor for weightier material, and the cover, a rural house in a snow-covered landscape, conveys that maybe the material is a bit chillier than we’ve come to expect from Nick Zammuto. Or, conversely, Anchor could represent stability – and indeed, Zammuto and his band sound like they’re quite comfortable with one another – and the house in the snow also issues a sense of warmth and coziness right on the other side of its door, a familial welcomeness that beckons to the weary and the frigid. It’s this dual nature that promotes a deeper, more inquisitive listening experience.
And yes, don’t worry. It’s quite good – Anchor is different from Zammuto; it’s not inferior.
Fortunately, we listeners aren’t tasked with slogging through a bunch of downtempo dirges or anything, as single “Great Equator” rides a krautrock rhythm and features snazzy keyboard interludes. Although you can’t help noticing there’s a dark cloud over the song, it shrouds the tune in mystery rather than gloom. The same can’t be said about Zammuto’s take on the traditional “Henry Lee” (yes, the one Nick Cave did on Murder Ballads, and the version I’m most familiar with), as it’s pretty much all doom and gloom – and death – throughout. Still, that’s OK – the arrangement is expansive, and allows chords and tones to stretch in an almost post rock sort of way. (Perhaps this is not surprising, as Temporary Residence, Zammuto’s label, knows a little bit about good post rock.)
“Need Some Sun” is a welcome bit of funkiness five songs in – sounds like Zammuto’s looking for some help from the “teacher, the charismatic leader” (and I think I connected to this song more readily since I’d recently seen The Master), and it’s a standout on the album. “IO,” also, is pretty much Zammuto in full-blown pop mode, hearkening back to funky 1980s pop hits and goofing on wordplay like “shit catapult.” (Not to be confused with German electronic label Shitkatapult. Or maybe that’s the exact intention.) They’re as close as Anchor gets to a “YAY” or “FU-C3PO” or “Zebra Butt,” songs that jump out and shake you till you wiggle with their catchy inventiveness.
But the most poignant song, “Your Time,” has Zammuto focused clearly on death: “Sooner or later gonna meet your maker, oh yes sir, gonna meet her / Sooner or later gonna be your time.” It’s here that he’s stumbled over the emotional line into truly heartbreaking territory, as the midpoint vocals of “Sooner or later gonna be your time” soar achingly. Not something you’d expect, perhaps, of Nick Zammuto, but he proves here that he’s good at it. Never fear, though, you won’t be left in tears – the album ends on the proggy “Code Breaker,” a strange choice maybe considering what’s come before it, but welcome – “Your Time” plus “Code Breaker” equals “go back to the beginning of the album and listen again!”
Anchor may not have been what fans expected from Zammuto following the self-titled debut, but it’s welcome nonetheless. Without knowing why this batch of songs coalesced into the unified whole that it did may make the album difficult to fully parse, but although the exercise is more somber, it’s more open, more expansive, and feels more lived in. Maybe Nick Zammuto’s relative comfort is the anchor that’s weighing him down. But therein lies the fun of listening to Anchor – there are no easy answers, and something new and exciting is bound to surface each time you press “play.”
RIYL: Pattern Is Movement, Buke & Gase, The Books