Happiness is not based on oneself, it does not consist of a small home, of taking and getting. Happiness is taking part in the struggle, where there is no borderline between one’s own personal world, and the world in general.
—Lee Harvey Oswald, in a letter to his brother
While the exact nature of ‘the struggle’ might have changed, Oswald’s belief in the salvation achieved through submersion in ideas bigger than yourself seems pretty timely and pertinent. Many of the twenty-first century’s major geopolitical events —from 9/11 to the Arab Spring to Trump and Brexit—seem to have been fueled by the conviction that participation in a wider movement, no matter how fantastical, can elevate a person above and beyond their own suffering. That is, to combat the erasure of self under tyrannical rulers or all-encompassing capitalism, one willingly forgets themselves amidst something bigger, letting go of all memories and histories to become part of a wider, manufactured abstraction.
Portland band Typhoon have long been crafting stellar indie rock that pushes the boundaries in terms of ambition and thematics, culminating in 2013’s majestic exploration of illness and recovery, White Lighter. The follow-up, Offerings, is no less aspiring and daring, a concept album that swaps the personal focus of their previous work for something more allegorical. The record is told “from the perspective of a mind losing its memory at precisely the same time the world is willfully forgetting its history,” explains lead Kyle Morton. “The urgent question becomes: without causality, without structures of meaning, without essential features of rational thought, is there anything that can save us from violence / oblivion?”
The exact narrative is left unclear, Typhoon favouring the implied rather than overt, though this is entirely in keeping with the themes being examined, and the almost filmic sound is more than capable of shouldering the responsibility. As the title suggests, opener ‘Wake’ finds the protagonist conscious with no awareness beyond the immediate present. He has no memories or sense of context, just the knowledge that he will eat when a nameless woman brings him food and then soil the bedclothes alone. In this way, his life flattened into the cyclical basics of life, higher consciousness is more or less annulled beyond a vague existential terror and the ghost of a song once heard, suggesting that the Nothing hasn’t always been so pervasive. “Au revoir my little memories,” he sings, clinging to barely there signs as protection against the nihilistic black. “Tell me: This is not your loss. This is your offering.”
‘Rorschach’ details a similar process occurring on a cultural level, forgetfulness (willful or otherwise) permeating society as fictions are re-imagined as fact, the sources used to double-check reality lost beneath the flood. As we described in our preview piece, “the system is whited out in an entropic blizzard, the overabundance of information causing an austerity of meaning,” resulting in a kind of endemic confusion that tends toward disaster. ‘Empiricist’ emerges within this new landscape, a strange superstitious place where nightmares and hallucinations replace the senses, and normal life plays like a superficial simulation over the top. The amnesiac is forced to join this charade, mimic the empty, repetitive cycle because it’s either that or Nothing.
“You find your land legs. And you learn to imitate.
You’ll wear any feathers and hope that your efforts attract a mate.
One day your children find you, locked in the bathroom,
staring in horror at the reflection of your face.”
The imitation continues on ‘Algernon’, the man tested by the strange woman, who is revealed to be his wife, and pretending to understand as though a suitably consistent commitment to mistruth might transcend the amnesia. Here the protagonist works on the logic that crafting a habitable simulacrum of a life beats having no life at all. Returning to the wider scope, ‘Unusual’ paints an existence within a place where such a feat has been achieved, Oswald’s fantasy on a country-wide scale, maintained beyond all reasoning and rationality. As shown on ‘Beachtowel’, this relativistic illusion is near-on impossible to challenge, because dissent requires doubt, and doubt only grows the ambiguity, and adding weight to the dreamscape. How can you question the truth of a system in which history has been rendered obsolete?
In reaction to this, ‘Remember’ switches focus away from big answers and toward small comforts. The song charts a regression into symbolic rituals and fanaticism, as though pseudo-pagan gestures might fully enmesh one into the fabric of the fantasy, or else burn all meaning so that there can be no consequence or punishment for the delusion. Though through all this remains the lingering hope that the constructed ‘reality’ can be punctured, so long as one remains sober and lucid. As Morton sings: “You gotta calm yourself and try to concentrate: What survives in the fire? What small fragment after all else disintegrates?”
This idea of some intrinsic essence that survives beyond the loss of all else, something that makes us ‘us’, is key to Offerings. Much energy is devoted to questions of preserving it, and extracting it once all memory and history has been erased. Flipping back to the personal, the short track of ‘Mansion’ appears to represent a return to the senses, or at least the memory of senses, as though the rigid sensations of touch and taste and smell might jolt us from the collective vision and return us to our old selves. And, while ‘Coverings’ sees the “darkening stain” dissolve details from the scene, a further step is taken. Here, human connection is offered as some kind of answer, capable of slowing or reversing the free-fall into oblivion, or else just making it less lonely. Following this thread, ‘Chiaroscuro’ reduces the outside world to an “abstract puppet show,” preaching the idea that communication and empathy can preserve small details of a person. As though fragments of information are coded in plasmids and transmitted to others, allowing them be recombined into an exterior body, and survive the erasure of the self.
Which isn’t to say such a process is exclusively positive, nor anything akin to immortality. ‘Darker’ finds the void closing in, and “every source of pain, every sting of pride” coming from external sources, as though to disintegrate alone would prove relatively humane in comparison to doing so in front of loved ones. Here, death is posited as preferable to the act of fighting for life, an exhausted surrender, though ‘Bergeron’, setting up a vicious circle, suggests willing engagement in fantasy as a defence against this. So too does ‘Ariadne’, with the protagonist “hallucinating audiences just to hand me a lifeline,” though a rational section of his mind kicks in too, suspicious of seductive superstitions and the sinister forces beneath their guises.
“Images of the primitive awakened from a dream.
Console yourself with the morning bells
but you can’t shake the feeling of being tied down to a table;
the guests are sharpening their teeth.
Everyone is a hostage. How will we ever get free?
We can’t even go a minute without trying to burn an effigy”
With rational thought only making the void more conspicuous, and submersion in fantasy ultimately false and empty, Offerings closes at something of an enforced stalemate. Final track ‘Sleep’ again offers human connection as the only comfort. In effect, Morton and Co. invert Oswald’s claim, hoping not to grow outside of the pain of the personal, but rather boil down to the essential elements, shedding everything beyond this fundamental core that makes a human who they are. There’s no foolproof method to achieve this, but it appears intimacy and love are the only things able to both transcend the mortal truth of life and anchor you to the present, walking a kind of tightrope between reality and fiction. With others, Typhoon seem to say, emotions and memories can be exchanged and held dear. With others, the possibility of something better, something more, is able to feel as real as it ever can.