Abstrakt Muzak, Mexico
by Sam Rodgers
material. begins in lower case, just like the album. We delve straight into the slightly tipsy first track's smoke machine fog, as if walking into Memo's set halfway. We've just arrived to hear the Austin-native's defiant and somewhat petulant claim: “You are not the end of the world.” This universally relatable phrase is repeated in an almost anthem-like chorus, but Memo Guerra doesn't seem concerned with fashioning a swaying, sing-a-long stadium hit. Listen closer; these lyrics aren't pussyfooting. This is a personal album and, at times, a private one, highly confessional, yet abstracted. The author has been jotting every thought down, from banal observations to poetic entendre, and these form the material for each track. Memo shares the process on “Restraint (parts 2-4 and 6)” (“from behind the shower curtains / I've always thought out loud / and made up songs about / makeshift offices and Vietnamese takeaway”) and then divulges, “then she turned scarlet / the color I most like her in.” It's hard not to blush with her.
In the first half of the album, Catholic guilt, bloody sheets, masturbating, and penis envy have all tumbled out of the singer's mouth. The first three tracks on material. mumble into each other, like Memo has invited you over and is skipping through the songs that have been helping him out through this tough time. No, no, this next one's awesome, he says. However, the five-minute plus songs never feel rushed or out of ideas. This makes the eight-track LP a satisfying length (despite his preoccupation with size). First single, “Separate Leaves/This Is The Line,” demands attention, it sprawls on the green, searching for a lost golf ball, slightly red in the eyes. From here, Memo takes respite in a half-track, “On the Rooftop,” where he finds some peace from the incessant disclosure before it. What comes next is material.'s only straightforward pop song, “While You Were Sleeping.” It seems stark compared with its forebears, with acoustic strumming and country music allusions, yet no less sonically engaging. Here, Memo comes out of the dejected sing-speak and asks us to hum along to the melody, a rallying signal to show the past/past loves that he, too, can make a digestible, happy tune. See? This isn't hard. Memo has woken up. With their eyes closed, antagonists look vulnerable, too. With this realization, it only makes sense that following track “Answers to the Questions” is instrumental. There's nothing to say when you've moved on.
material. explores many musical styles, never adhering to any one code. There are moments of lush Zero 7-like orchestration, braided Animal Collective-esque psychedelia, Badly Drawn Boy-experiments-with-distortion vocals, and Jim O'Rourke bite in the almost muttered, cutting lyrics. Borrowed and used deliberately, Memo crafts his own, though not ostentatious, sound. Perversely, this is both the album's charm and annoyance. Like the aliases Memo plays with behind his extracurricular projects, here too he seems comfortable putting on stylistic masks when the intention of the album seems to be to come clean. This is not always a distraction, however. In this make-up, Memo is, in a way, at his most vulnerable: an understanding that an awkward frame for admission, like a cheesy greeting card, says more about intent than the actual words within.
On the other hand, the sonc obfuscation threatens to derail the album's through line. The sitar of “Separate Leaves/This Is The Line” returns in penultimate track “Open,” but all sign of traditional instrumentation disappears in electronic closer “Portugal,” when the language of choice changes to Spanish, and, at one point, aggression replaces the ponderous quasi-depression of the rest of the album. While no doubt meant to be jarring, whether or not listeners dig being frustrated by the artist will determine how material. is accepted. It could be argued that Memo has designed it so, playing with the fine line between sincerity and pretense. One wonders what his past loves would have to add to the picture, but perhaps they were just as simultaneously intrigued and baffled by this–nonetheless sympathetic–anti-hero.