Review: Idyl’s Elements of the Field

Idyl: Elements of the Field

Idyl: Elements of the Field (5/8/12)

“Rio da Duvida”

[audio:|titles=Idyl: “Rio da Duvida”]

Thirty years ago, an artist like Alex Dupree may not have gotten past his debut album, a record brimming with both respect for the folk tradition and an insatiable need for experimentation, recorded with a group of misfits from Austin, Texas, who called themselves the Trapdoor Band. He may not have gotten past his second record or his third or the EP that came out between them, music that earned Dupree comparisons to Bob Dylan, at least by the few folks listening. Fortunately, times have changed, and artists like Dupree don’t need to be ratified by the critics’ vanguard to keep making music.

Things have changed for Dupree, though, too — his name being one of them. Elements of the Field, which came out last week without a major label, is filed under the name Idyl. He’s also traded in a more austere Americana sound for something whose origins require a globe. Eight- and nine-minute songs, tinted by Latin and South Asian influences, take up the majority of the record, while the rest is composed of small, instrumental pieces that help themselves to electronics and samples, feeling like pages from a sonic notebook, the sketches of bigger ideas. Because of this, and the sometimes-jarring production of the longer compositions, Elements could be mistaken for Dupree’s debut. It’s rough around the edges, a little raw. And yet, because he’s put out seemingly stronger, certainly sleeker, more sing-a-long-style material, we’re left with the fact that everything here — the raggedness, the reverb, the esoteric titles and stylistic divergences — must be intentional.

In a way, Elements of the Field is the perfect name for this collection, evoking the bald objectivity of unaltered field recordings, or the anthropological practice of field observation. There’s an out-there-ness, a nod to the unknown. It begins with “Rio da Duvida,” a reference to a Brazilian river whose name translates to River of Doubt.” Over finger-picked guitar, wire-brushed drums, and simmering strings, Dupree’s half-whispered words — soft not for effect but for austerity — tell a story that bridges world history and personal experience. “Roosevelt has got the fever / Oh, Michael, hold my forehead back / I’ve said my prayers and gone a slipping / into the all-knowing, all-seeing black / Is there a spirit on the water? / All I can hear for a quarter-mile / are the mosquitoes on the marshes / the rolling water turning white.” He’s talking about Theodore Roosevelt, whose excursion changed Brazilian history. On a map today, you won’t find the Rio da Duvida, but a waterway known as the Roosevelt River.

The pairing of naturalist imagery with historical reference — and often spiritual ruminations — is a constant for Dupree, a tendency indulged for eight minutes and fifty seconds on “The Unconscious Reversal of History into Nature,” an opus that serves as an elegy for this country’s westward expansion as well as a rumination on the omnipresence of a higher power. It’s a song for the likes of Meriwether Lewis, partner to William Clark, and John Wesley Powell, the one-armed mountain man who mapped the West in 1869.

Dupree has always been a storyteller, no matter the instrumentation under his boyish, narrator’s voice. “Isis,” a mesmerizing cover of Dylan’s song from his 1976 album Desire, feels mythological, allegorical, requiring excavation. Beneath the unadorned, almost awkward syntax of Dylan’s words is a loop that sounds like a banjo part written in Mumbai. Fuzzed-out effects and percussive textures flesh out the track, which has been removed from its original 3/4 time signature, its fluvial current as an electronic pulse that somehow never feels mechanical.

In the past six years, not a lot has been written about Dupree. (Google confuses him with Alex Dupre, a character from One Tree Hill, and Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the prostitute who gained notoriety for her involvement with former New York governor Eliot Spitzer.) This is despite a voice that is at once prophetic and unassuming, and songs that speak profoundly to a generation’s arduous relationship with a globalized, warring world and the history that brought us here. Each album’s sound has differed from the last. The evolution continues with Elements of the Field — in fact, it seems to have skipped a few stages. Where he’ll go next is a question that no one, not Roosevelt or Lewis or any explorer, can answer.

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