Ben McCarthy “Decorative Arts”

If you call a song “All Our Happy Days Are Stupid,” I’m probably going to be curious. It’s such a great, on-the-nose title and reflects something that crept through my mind often during lockdown. Thankfully, Toronto’s Ben McCarthy delivers the good on his new album, Decorative Arts. Synthetic worlds emerge from a glowing glass sea funneled through an uplifting, contemplative tonal filter. Decorative Arts is steeped in introspection, a way to sift through the mundane brutalism that has overtaken so much time and space in the past year. McCarthy’s approach is subtle, but the gentle nudges he offers – a filter sweep here, high-pitched, heavily processed voices there – open up a path toward the dawn.

On the aforementioned “All Our Happy Days Are Stupid,” the lights are low as hollow, melancholy chords reverberate under a blanket of hiss. Barely recognizable guitars float in-and-out of view, a mirage or reminder of a different life even if it was only a few months back. McCarthy renders every last ounce of feeling from the room as a disembodied, artificial voice recites wordless chants that sound like laments for the end of time as the song gently falls apart. It’s exquisite.

Two collaborations bring in new angles to Decorative Arts. Irish-producer, Lighght (whose Holy Endings is one of my favorites this year) joins in on the glassine “beneath the ice, the river still flows.” Churning electronics build tension as they grind beneath hypnotic, looping piano chords and echoing sonic shards, combining static and movement in a mentally exhausting form. Each new element adds to the anguish, building a wall of sound that tries to shield against the coming devastation without success. “beneath the ice, the river still flows” hints at a way forward, but gets overwhelmed in the detritus of isolation. We know there’s more out there, but breaking out of the cycle to find it gets harder with each passing moment.

With the other collaborative piece, “Ultra Bloor” with Tax Haven, the duo jump between poles. Hollowed-out floating drones are bowled over by pounding, percussive crashes, and sub-bass ephemera. Paranoid frequencies hang in the air, waiting for someone that never shows up to ease the building fear. Distant rhythms beckon a murky sirensong that explodes into a blown-out, degraded horn solo. It’s such a strange, memorable track.

As an introduction to Ben McCarthy’s work, Decorative Arts is a triumph. It’s such a dense, emotionally draining album that does a sensational job of bottling up the apprehension, exhaustion, and weary hope of the past year. Closer “After Anomie (more hope)” dreams of the light, pushing celestial tones to the fore and yearning for tranquil dawn. McCarthy has crafted something beautiful from the bleakest shadows.

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