splendid > reviews > 9/19/2002
Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Only You Can Rock Me"

Buy me now
Here's a switch -- a Negativland album in which the music itself isn't the primary attraction. Deathsentences' series of white-noise sculptures -- described as the sound of the multi-media collective's studio being destroyed in a car crash -- is certainly interesting, but the materials that accompany it will have a far more lasting effect upon your consciousness.

The materials come packaged in a custom-printed automotive "courtesy envelope" -- one of those big, fancy, foldery-type things that holds your new car manual, warranty papers and so forth, painstakingly designed and die-cut to be exactly half an inch wider than your car's glove compartment. So committed is Negativland to the whole automotive illusion that they play it absolutely straight; the outside of the folder realistically mirrors a real owner's manual sleeve, complete with repair records and an accident information form, all devoid of references to Mertz, the Universal Media Netweb or the characters that populate the group's extended alternate universe. It's a wise move. Deathsentences is disturbing because of its unflinching connection to reality, and typical Negativland shtick would only dilute its intensity.

The "meat" of the project is the 64-page booklet that accompanies the disc. Like Damien Jurado's Postcards and Audio Letters it's a voyeuristic document, an outgrowth of Negativland member Richard Lyons's fascination with correspondence found in wrecked cars. Lyons's discovery, in a junkyard, of a car he had once owned, filled with the intimate but anonymous writings of subsequent owners, inspired extensive thought. Who were these people? How had they come to use the car? And given the state of the car when Lyons found it in the junkyard -- cut apart by the jaws of life -- what had become of them?

Other vehicles in the junkyard spun similar tales, yielding love notes, party invites, unpaid bills and other artifacts of their faceless former owners. Lyons was obsessed. He and his Negativland cronies spent several years combing through wrecked automobiles, retrieving and transcribing their literary treasures and photographing the twisted, often-skeletal vehicular remains to provide a "context" for their discoveries. The Deathsentences booklet contains the "best" of their discoveries.

Some of the "found" writings are innocuous: grocery lists, an embarrassing Christmas party invitation, a very detailed job application letter. A few are amusing: there's a page of math homework that scored a "100", but suggests that the owner should pay a lot more attention in English class; a certificate of achievement from a community Alcohol and Drug Center, found in a car trunk littered with empty beer bottles and cans. Some of the longer pieces give you a good idea of their writers' lives -- notes passed between girlfriends attempt to patch up trivial feuds, while other notes detail their writers' attempts to sustain or terminate long-distance relationships, some of which seem to have been enforced by incarceration or military service. If you're a spelling/grammar/usage nut like me, many of these notes will give you little hope for the future of the English language.

A few are genuinely disturbing. A cheery "Dear Daddy, I love you" note, written on a business reply card, is accompanied by a photo of a minivan mangled in a head-on collision in which the driver's head clearly hit the windshield. You'll wonder what happened to this family. Who was behind the wheel? Does Michelle, the note-writer, still have a daddy? Another note, accompanied by an ultrasound image of a fetus, is a kiss-off to one "Joe", who has apparently developed cold feet since impregnating his (presumably very young) girlfriend. "Vigina (sic) siad (in the interest of not cluttering the narrative, future 'sics' are implied) you don't want to talk to me so we are thru with each other and I am getting a borchen," writes Sandra Mathers. "I don't want your baby so leave me a lone." It's clearly force of habit that makes her sign the note, "Love, Sandy".

Another girl, presumably a little older, tells a potential paramour of her recent miscarriage. "I am kinda glad I lost it," she says, "since I wasn't in love with the guy. I told him I was pregnant and he really seemed like he didn't care. Thats O.K. I didn't love the guy!! He was hooked on C.R. and the baby proble would of came out mental!!" If you're not profoundly disturbed the writer's casual indifference to sex, drug addiction and her lost baby, there's probably something just as wrong with you. Combined with a photo of a little red car crushed beyond recognition, it's chilling. What the hell happened here?

To be fair, Lyons and his cohorts aren't attempting to assemble a moral commentary; there's no suggestion that premarital sex and teen pregnancy leads to car accidents and death, or any other nonsense. These photos and documents are simply a reminder that the things we build -- whether we're talking about cars or bodies or lives -- break. Our magnificent constructions decay and collapse, and our lives, divorced of context, endure only as meaningless information.

The CD that accompanies these images takes its name from a tape cassette found in a trashed AMC Concord (except for the final track, "When They Ring The Golden Bells", named for a piece of sheet music scavenged from a particularly badly-damaged vehicle). The disc's twelve compositions are ever-shifting collages of found sounds and voices, white noise, industrial clattering, assorted processed tones and unidentified menacing throbbing sounds. It's unusually vague stuff by Negativland standards -- more like Throbbing Gristle material, really -- but a suitably unreal and uneasy soundscape to accompany the book's images. The constantly-changing wash of sounds is interesting without being particularly abrasive; listeners accustomed to darker electro-acoustic and industrial/experimental material will find it to be pretty much par for the course.

The book, on the other hand, will give you nightmares if you think too hard about it. Plan on taking public transportation for a while after you've read it.



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