Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy March 8, 2004
There’s something downright unnerving about Dean Roberts’ Be Mine Tonight, a four-song, 35-minute glacier of an album. It’s not unnerving because it’s abrasive or offensive or obnoxious. That would be too easy, too obvious. What really slips the record under your skin is preciously what’s absent from it: so much of the context and tired, time-worn forms that many listeners would chalk up as musical foundations. Not Roberts. The guitarist casts aside notions of fixed genres and seems to associate formulas with inhibitive walls as he crafts complicated but understated compositions that, simply put, are like horizons. This is not music to ingest while gazing at a dark sunset. This is the sound of the sun setting.
Roberts introduces his combination of prepared guitar, droning post rock, and dissonant odes with the epic, 19-minute “All Pidgins Sent to War, Palace of Adrenaline V and E.E.,” whose name alone should clue you in to the mind and method at work here. The track isn’t a song, really, as much as it’s a journey, a kind of exploration without a premeditated end in sight. It all begins with a drone or two, a touch of guitar hum and buzz and rattle, a clip of alarm clocks trembling — or is it cymbals being tapped? — somewhere behind the curtain. And, without too much sense of concrete form, it evolves from there, naturally transforming and providing space for several musical narratives and themes to develop. At two minutes, a brush flirts with a snare drum and a repeating measure on piano casually begins to unfurl, occasionally stumbling over itself before giving way to verse-oriented musings from detuned guitar and voice.
Roberts’ voice, frequently recorded a half step above a whisper, is as fragile and glassy as the composition that surrounds it, shaking on high notes but stopping short of falsetto. As inviting as it may be, the voice itself isn’t what leads the song, though. Roberts’ only interest in traditional ballad forms seems to be in peeling away the layers of sincerity until all the remains, like the vast majority of “All Pidgins,” is stark-naked sentiment and the illuminating tatters of melody or intention. He also doesn’t rush the process of discovering this. Only after eight minutes do we return to that early piano measure and, after nine minutes, the thought narrative is abandoned almost entirely for a new series of slowly unfolding guitar patterns. Only as we near the 16-minute mark does a guitar sequence seem to hint at the patterns of the song’s early moments, and, at 18 minutes, we build and build and build only to float and fade away. In a listen straight through from beginning to end, the song’s beauty is downright stunning.
For all of the (much-deserved) compliments, though, note that this is not a record for the impatient, for those hungry for ambitious experimental music that feeds them grand statements, précis-style, in 30-second sound bytes. Quite the opposite, just as the sunset can be its own reward, Roberts’ music is most brilliant to those willing to give it a lot of time to reveal itself.
And so goes the rest of the record. “Disappearance on the Grandest of Streets” is smaller in scope than its predecessor but buys into the same logic of expansion, its beauty lulled into memory with swaying guitars, whispered vocals, and understated percussion from drummer Valerio Tricoli (here making his debut). It’s perhaps the most song-like of the disc’s offerings, with prepared guitar lines stealing the limelight in the track’s waning moments. “Smash the Palace and What Nerves You Got” and the more curtly dubbed “Letter to Monday” offer similar reflections, with the sad and somber bleeding into the elegiac as Roberts explores the subtleties of his songwriting, which has an amazing organic quality to it. The closing instrumental swirls of “Letter,” where multiple guitars do an incredible job of enveloping the listener, are alone worth the time invested in arriving at them.
Roberts’ latest record will be a tough sell for a lot of listeners, and especially for those not willing to give themselves over to a long-winded journey. But how can you fully appreciate the impact of music that takes this level of care in wrapping its arms around you without being willing to let your guard down and let it lead the way?