Welcome back Boduf Songs, straight off the starting blocks with another ingeniously constructed threat of violence to the listener, with both the compulsion and responsibility for the act located outside of the detached perpetrator and the implication of an animist, ritual significance. It’s a classic Mat Sweet strategy, delivered straight-faced and expressionless, uncomfortably unfiltered intimacy with an undercurrent of knowing mischief. After all, this is the same man who began 2008’s How Shadows Chase the Balance with the line “All of my heroes died the same day, all of them fallen away / swinging from nooses, wrists opened wide / arteries spilled at their sides” and 2006’s Lion Devours the Sun with a song that contained the lyric “All round your sex / black flies breeding.” If this were an Iron Maiden album it would be the money shot, the moment at which the screaming crowd raises their devil signs in unison.
This is Sweet’s fourth full-length album under his whispered doom-folk Boduf Songs moniker, the first since relocating to Chicago. The shift in his home studio’s address can’t take full credit for any subtle changes in his modus operandi, given his complete disinterest in Southampton’s busily unadventurous acoustic singer-songwriter scene, an ironic coincidence of geography and superficial idiomatic association of which he probably isn’t even aware. Given his hands-on approach (Sweet plays everything himself, records the music, films his own videos and makes his own merchandise… you suspect that these records would have been self-released in lovingly handmade packaging had Kranky not signed him) it’s much more appropriate to position him as an ex-pat member of the UK’s unpredictable and underdocumented DIY scene rather than as belonging to any particular folk fraternity. Indeed, the Boduf Songs touring band features long-time associate and underground mainstay Clive Henry, whose Little Creature recordings, intense live performances and associations with Team Brick, Bad Orb, Deepkiss 720 and Dogeeseseegod have far more in common with Wolf Eyes than Devendra Banhart.
In this context it comes as less of a surprise when second track “Decapitation Blues” lurches from typically restrained atmospherics into a propulsive rock riff with choppily sequenced drums, recalling as it does Sweet and Henry’s now defunct former band Sodding Wolfshead. It’s taken four albums and half a decade to reach this moment of delayed gratification, and when it happens it’s claustrophobic rather than cathartic, the clarity of its whispered vocal above the guitars having the effect of flattening the dynamic in a manner that internalises the turmoil. Puerile sonic release barely seems to be the point: this is a devastating metaphor for the futility of externalising your inner demons, uncomfortably evocative of schizophrenia despite being grafted onto the schlock thrill of what ostensibly starts out as a lyrical zombie narrative.
This effect extends into “Absolutely Null and Utterly Void”, a song that begins with no-fi vocals and what sounds like the stuttering into life of a decrepit recording device, conceits that, taken together as signifiers of the bedroom studio, reinforce the albums’ wry meta-commentary on the desperation of only being able to look inward. The bleak refrain “We can scream the whole place down” becomes a thwarted and inaudible take on the guttural forced howl of black metal, hopeless in its near inability to be heard. “I Have Decided To Pass Through Matter” and “Green They Were, And Golden Eyed” hint at the aforementioned UK underground connections; the former utilises a similar methodology to the currently Southampton-based Annie Lewandowski’s Powerdove project, with its softly strummed guitar and vocal harmonies suspended above – and in places nearly disconnected from – a Dogeeseseegod or Little Creature-sounding noise improvisation; while the latter fragment uses a similar technique but dispenses with the guitar, leaving Sweet naked and alone in a haunted fog of sound. The “Giant Umbilical Cord That Connects Your Brain to the Centre” is the closest the album comes to the vintage Boduf Songs from previous records, leaving “They Get On Slowly” and “I Am Going Away and I Am Never Coming Back “sounding like a bedroom Radiohead (in the best possible sense); “They Get On…” could be knowingly self aware of Sweet’s tendency to keep returning to pick at the bones of similar material, with its statement “Although it tastes the same, each one is different to the last” and references to “meat picked clean;” while “I Am Going Away…” switches perceptual positions with the victim from album opener “Bought Myself a Cat O Nine Tails “with pleas to “Stay with me until the hammer cracks my skull for the last time.”
As an aside, for what is primarily a recording project it’s striking how effective Boduf Songs’ live performances can be. Sweet maintains a knife edge tension, an ambience of near sacred stillness, as his barely amplified voice exhales his songs like incense. It’s an essential reminder that an uneasy, uncanny quiet can be just as intense as extreme volume, and it will be interesting to hear how the broader instrumental palette of these songs are reconfigured in future concerts.
This Alone Above All Else In Spite Of Everything could be a turning point in the Boduf Songs project. Mat Sweet is standing at the edge of an abyss, not in the shallow psychological sense attributed by most commentators (the songs are never that harrowing), but rather in terms of a multiplicity of potential meanings and endless avenues for future expansion. At their best, his songs draw from a rich vein of occult symbolism, pulp esoterica and unconscious signifiers. Now this latest record hints that those magical possibilities might extend further into the music itself, exploring a cross fertilisation of song composition with noise and improvisation across a wider sonic range. His broad tastes and instrumental accomplishment promise bolder statements to come, while his willingness to try his hand at anything is kept in check with a keen sense of what not to play. Where he goes next is anyone’s guess.