Geez, I hope Aesop doesn’t read this review (fat chance) because I’m about to be a bit, uh, rude. Anyway, a good friend of mine by the name of John Paul Zigterman (one of the funniest people online) said that he couldn’t get into Aesop’s music because he seemed very full of himself (someone in the comments used the term “big ‘gifted kid’ energies”). He said, and I quote: “idk man, I just don’t really like aesop rock. seems like the kinda guy that invites people over to watch all the star wars films in canonical order” Honestly, the post and the subsequent comment opened my eyes a bit to my relationship with Aesop; after all, you can’t really deny the statements. A lot of Aesop Rock‘s appeal comes from his lyrical manipulation and unique flavor, coupled with a fascination with a very certain type of science fiction/horror mashup that’s created such things as Stranger Things.
While I’m not saying that this necessarily “””objectively””” bad, this sort of things exude a very specific sort of aesthetic, one which, to be honest, I don’t often enjoy. And yet, I enjoy Aesop Rock’s music, a lot, and his new album, Spirit World Field Guide, is no different. I ended up commenting the following: “That’s definitely him but he also makes fun of himself while doing so so he’s alright in my book”. I stand behind this statement as a good explanation of what makes Spirit World Field Guide work for me (and, when I think about it, the rest of his music). Aesop’s lyricism remains as self-confident and nerdy as always on this release but also employs plenty of self-deprecation to even things out, leaving us not only with fantastical landscapes but also deep emotional states and perspectives.
Oh, and the music fucking rules. Maybe I should have started there, actually: the production and composition of the instruments on this album is the best that Aesop Rock’s instrumentation has ever been. Just flip on tracks like “Boot Soup”, with its absolutely infectious groove section and weird synths, or “Coveralls” with its strange, futuristic sounds and beats or the big guitars of “Gauze”, and you’ll be hooked. It’s not just that these instruments make a great backdrop for Aesop Rock’s lyrics (which it does, as the aforementioned “Coveralls” will show you) but that it genuinely stands on its own. It’s a killer combo, ensuring that you’ll have plenty to sink into even when the initial “cool” factor of the album passes.
Which brings us full circle back to Aesop’s words on the album. Drawing cleverly on the concept of the album (a journey into a weird afterlife/ghost dimension/haunted forest), Aesop’s lyrics run from the fantastical (like the absolutely magical realist lands and journeys described on tracks like “Pizza Alley”) to explorations of the protagonist’s attitude to these weird situations. Of course, the fantastical events and the responses to them are not “the point”; these are all metaphors for general perspectives, worldviews, and reactions to the very weird “mundane” world and life we’re constantly surrounded by.
Take “Dog At the Door” for example, one of the funnier tracks on the album. It describes a character being paranoid about every sound, imagining a mysterious “they” lying in wait, setting traps for it. This is one of the best examples of the self-deprecation on the album which makes it for me; the character (Aesop himself) makes fun of his own fears, constantly. Is it really a small animal outside or a multi-dimensional conspiracy designed to destroy him? The track leaves the answer ambiguous because the larger questions that hide behind it (does the universe revolve around us or is just random, to name one possible question) also have ambiguous answers “in real life”.
Put all of these different parts together and you get an incredibly rewarding album. With every release of this sort, you’ll find yourself diving into the lyrics, with the ultimate goal (at least for me) being to “figure out” what the artist is trying to tell you on each track. On Spirit World Field Guide, like on all good horror, the answer is subtle and complex. It can be read as just a narrative, as a metaphor or an analogy or even as auto-biography. When you add the excellent music to this complexity, introducing yet another in-road to experiencing the album, you get something truly special.
Spirit World Field Guide was released on November 13th. You can acquire it by lighting the appropriate number of candles on the night of the blood moon. Or, you know, click above to the project’s Bandcamp page.