Monday, January 30, 2017

A Ghostly Yearning: Passive with Desire by Choir Boy

The artwork for Choir Boy's Passive with Desire (released late last year on Team Love Records) features a pair of vampires with pale faces, black cloaks, fearsome fangs and blood-stained lips. One of them is eyeing you up hungrily, while the other twin appears to be in a state of near-orgasm as he imagines biting into your neck and bursting open your jugular vein.

Choir Boy mainman Adam Klopp - the man who dressed up as Dracula for those two photos - will offer you a dozen different explanations as to what the bloodthirsty vampires on the cover of his band's first album represent. They reflect the album's themes of death and depression and darkness, but there's also a nostalgic element to the image, which was conceived - at least in part - as an attempt to recreate a Halloween photo from Klopp's childhood. Then there's the way in which vampires, with their habit for feeding off of others, might be seen as a metaphor for abusive relationships, or our greedy capitalist society, or...

Yes, one can read lots of different things into the vampire imagery that adorns this album (and has also shown up in Choir Boy's gig posters, band photos, and a music video). But funnily enough, when I actually *listen* to Passive with Desire, I don't hear vampires at all - I hear a ghost.

It is a ghost - a consciousness with no body, no flesh, no physical presence at all - who floats through this album, aching to rejoin the corporeal world. Like a fragile glass ornament packed in bubble wrap, Adam Klopp's mournful, spectral falsetto is cushioned by layers of sumptuous new wave synth, creating an ethereal sound that triggers a kind of '80s-movie nostalgia but also feels strangely other, weightless and untethered from Earth's gravity. Klopp doesn't sound like a being made of flesh and bone and sinew; he sounds like a spirit who can scarcely even remember the last time he set foot on solid ground.

Still, the memories are there, faint and few and far between though they be. In Blood Moon, perhaps Passive with Desire's best moment, we hear the ghost make aching references to his childhood, and specifically to his parents' house. Elsewhere, Angel Dog suggests a blurry recollection of old neighbours and their presumably long-dead pet. Fragments of a life are scattered throughout this album, but the humanity that would tie them all together remains agonisingly out of reach.

Out of reach for the most part, anyway. Every so often, the otherworldly synth soundscape parts and a flash of live instrumentation appears like a glimpse of moonlight on a cloudy autumn evening. There's the violin figure that joins the fray towards the end of Leave Me Be; there's the shimmering guitar pattern that heralds the arrival of the title track; and there's the gorgeous, moaning trumpet heard in the midst of Sanitarium, the melancholy pool of stillness and calm at the centre of all this out-of-body turmoil.

These moments, where the unearthly briefly cedes to the earthly, are the moments when the ghost feels human again. When your hear violins or trumpets peeking through the synthesisers and drum machines, you're hearing our disembodied friend experiencing - however fleetingly - what it's like to have heavy, feeling flesh and a sense of being a real person with a present and a future as well as a past.

Take track 4, I Feel How the Snow Falls, as an example. This song finds our ghost standing in the snow, staring in through the window of a cosy suburban home and seeing a happy family getting ready for Christmas. This vision - of tinsel and stockings, of a tree aglow with fairy lights, of a mother covertly wrapping presents in the kitchen while dad distracts the kids - makes him wish desperately that he could experience the warmth and joy of a family Christmas for himself, but just when bitter despondency is about to overwhelm him completely, he notices something. Feels something.

As the song draws to a close, he looks down and is surprised to realise not only that the falling snowflakes are landing on him, but that he can feel the cold, soft kiss of each one as it settles with a high-pitched plink of piano keys.

Passive with Desire is a brooding collection of songs with a turbulent darkness at its core, but it's just possible that it concludes with a happy ending. Closing track Dark Room sounds markedly different to the songs that precede it: the claustrophobic sense of menace that looms over much of the album is suddenly absent, but even more notably, Dark Room is largely performed using organic instruments - indicating that our ghost has finally broken through and returned to his corporeal body.

There's a real sense of both release and relief when Dark Room emerges from the miasma to drop the curtain on Passive with Desire. The song is built upon a pretty acoustic guitar melody rather than a lattice of synths, and the nervous tick of the programmed drum kit has been smothered by the gentle, nuanced nudge of live drums and cymbals. Hearing this immediately after listening to the other eight tracks feels like reaching the end of a long tunnel and gasping as the dim light reaches your eyes and the fresh air fills your lungs. There are certainly some synthetic sounds still in the mix, but they've been pushed to the margins, relegated to a less central and more decorative role. It's as if they're the memories now, and life - real life - can resume in earnest.

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