There’s a moment in the making-of documentary of Magnolia where writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is moments away from shooting the film’s first scene. “So this is the first shot of the movie,” he says. “I think we should all unashamedly try and make a great movie. And don’t apologize. Let’s just try and make a really, really, really fantastic movie. Because there’s no shame in that.”
Implicit in Anderson’s statement is that there’s something a bit embarrassing about making capital-A Art, and that the pursuit of greatness is often a one-way ticket to pretentiousness. This stray moment (from a DVD extra, no less) continually came to mind while I looked, listened to, and grappled with Ensemble, the latest release from Jon Mueller’s multi-disciplinary Death Blues project. Like Anderson’s gloriously sprawling film, Ensemble is a work of art that swings for the fences and shoots for the moon, and makes no bones about it. It’s an unabashedly ambitious, unapologetically grand statement on the impermanence of life, the finality of death, and the power of music, words, and visual art to influence how we navigate everything in between. It’s an assured, glorious, and deliberate masterpiece, and there’s no shame in that.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m tackling this piece from the first person, something I never do with album reviews. (Seriously, first-person album reviews are the worst. Just say no.) But the very nature of Death Blues’ Ensemble demands a more on-the-ground approach. Not only does the subject matter require it, but the album’s physical manifestation does, too: Handsomely bound in a 16-page hardback book filled with essays by Stacy Blint, Faith Coloccia, Brent Gohde, Sally Haldorson, Chris Koelle, Tom Lecky, and David Ravel; and illustrated throughout by handmade masks from late artist Lillian Rammel, Ensemble’s vinyl release is a work of art itself. It’s something to be handled, something to be dealt with in the real world.
Some background: Death Blues is the multi-media project of Milwaukee-based drummer/percussionist Jon Mueller, best known from groups like Volcano Choir and Collections Of Colonies Of Bees. The project has taken the form of multiple releases over the years (this year’s Non-Fiction among them), live performances, written manifestos, and one-night-only concert/installations. Recorded over the course of two years with composer/multi-instrumentalist William Ryan Fritch, Ensemble is Mueller and Death Blues at their most symphonic and dense. Its nine tracks (11 with a digital download code) are wordless, and mostly built from the initial sound of a hammer striking the strings of an acoustic guitar.
Opener “Consonance” sets the tone with a booming choir and Mueller’s crashing, heart-on-its-sleeve drumming before giving way to a snaking, Chinese-indebted string riff that wouldn’t feel out of place on the soundtrack to a mournful martial arts epic. Those strings permeate the rest of Ensemble, with tracks like “Participant” and “Languaging” finding unexpected depth and layers both above and below. Elsewhere, “Loss” is a jaw-dropping, cinematic tour de force, almost perverse in its jaunty otherworldliness. The terrific “Unseen” plays like a macabre dirge, while closer “Onward” ends things (abruptly) on a prayerful chant. All told, Ensemble is a whirling dervish of an album, never content to stay in one place, always shifting, always searching.
Sitting with Mueller’s record for the past few weeks has been difficult for me. Its words, images, and sounds all brood on the general concepts (and at times, stark details) of vulnerability, loss, and death: In the album’s essays, Gohde explores the contours of depression and hopelessness, while Ravel ponders life as a known and finite quantity by recounting the deaths of his father and wife. And yet with the birth of my fist daughter last month, my life has been filled with nothing but promise and hope. What business do I have eavesdropping on the pain of others? What business do I have listening to a project called Death Blues in the first place?
But therein lies Mueller’s greatest trick: For a project so obsessed with death, it’s practically overflowing with life. Listen to the graceful middle section of “Reentry.” Listen to the hopeful tempo change of “Obtain.” Listen to the joy flirting around the edges of every composition. They offer a reprieve, and perhaps even a chance to beat back the march of time, if only for a moment. If great art has the power to cheat death—and Death Blues’ Ensemble certainly qualifies as great art—then so be it. There’s no shame in that.
A live performance of Death Blues’ Ensemble will take place Saturday, January 31, 2015 at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre for Alverno Presents.