Recently, I’ve realized that the albums I use in playlists for when I’m cranking out a paper have infiltrated the playlists I put on when I’m having sex. Yes, you can find those playlists on my Spotify account. Yes, you can borrow them whenever you want for whatever your reason, and yes, you can find Mark McGuire’s new album “Along the Way” on either one.
Beyond the carnality of my essays, the collegiality of my lovemaking and the banality of my playlist titles, Mark McGuire reveals a trend in electronic music in the post-dubstep world with his dichotomous sound—ambient yet visceral, and ethereal yet physical. Much like fellow producers like Burial, Nicolas Jaar and Jon Hopkins conjure sterile soundscapes only to fill them with life and feeling, Mark McGuire marries the hedony of Donna Summer disco to the austerity of Aphex Twin ambience.
Maybe that isn’t quite fair. After all, the first sound we hear on opening track, “Awakening,” is an acoustic guitar, hardly the staple of the electronic musician. But how does one even begin to define an electronic musician in 2014, 10years after all the rock kids sold their guitars to buy turntables? “Reflektor”—the de facto Arcade Fire-LCD Soundsystem collaboration last year might have finally rendered distinctions between genres like rock and electronic music irrelevant—if they’ve ever been relevant at all.
What’s strange about the progress that independent music has made, at least as far as “Along the Way” can tell us, is how much it sounds like the '80s. This record is the most throwback album I’ve heard since Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.” But whereas the robots brought in the real life musicians, from Nile Rodgers to Giorgio Moroder, to craft their retro-futurist-funk, McGuire merely takes inspiration from his stylistic forbears. “Along the Way” is how a Pink Floyd record would sound if Roger Waters were raised on “Explosions in the Sky,” which is to say, like a dazzling spaceship being launched into space by an arpeggiator, which is to say, very silly.
The length of the album is enough to justify its comparison to a Genesis record. Clocking in at over an hour with eight songs breaching the five-minute mark, listening to the whole thing alone is an undertaking. McGuire has an innate ear for melody, however, and each note—no matter how arpeggiated—carries the listener further into the song’s Martian universe. Maybe the best thing we can call it is space rock, the lyrics sucked from McGuire’s mouth by the void, leaving only the musical notes to squiggle on as cosmic vibrations.
In what I hope is a nod to his prog-rock heroes, McGuire complements the physical edition of “Along the Way” with an 8,000-word book of lyrics, describing the mostly instrumental music as “the quest of the individual seeking the answers to the great mysteries of life.” What else than the very struggle for the meaning of human existence could endow this music with the proper gravitas?
But such weight does not sink “Along the Way” like an Alfonso Cuarón script. The album’s lush pedigree informs our experience listening to it, and we can delight in its historicity. McGuire did not create the 21st century version of “The Wall,” nor even “Dark Side of the Moon,” but I don’t think he meant to. He references the bloated and pretentious spirit of prog-rock in his spacey sounds and liberal-arts storyline, but he’s having too much of a blast to take it too seriously. This is a goofy record that’s aware of its place in history and acknowledges the campiness of its endeavor, and yet still performs as if everything is on the line. It knows how to have fun.
Maybe that’s why it proves a good companion to writing history on the page and making it between the bed sheets. As a musician in 2014, Mark McGuire has learned how to have fun with the past rather than being crippled by it. “Along the Way” is a record for all your Valentine’s Day needs at a liberal arts college.