Before we get to Kid Smpl’s music, let’s first debunk the idea of empty space.
Humans know nothing of nothingness. What we perceive as nothing is the lack of things, but even lack is a thing.
So when we talk about empty space, we’re referring to a scale that, due to the physicality of the human mind, can never reach absolute zero. Consciousness cannot negate itself.
“Music is the space between the notes,” said French minimalist composer Claude Debussy. At its center, a note is definite, distinct, knowable. Further out, in the space between, notes get fuzzy, transitional. They overlap and diffuse, pull and propel. The absence of tonal clarity demands more effort on the listener’s part; in the haze it’s harder to connect. But once made, that connection is profound. Sensation is more vivid because input is less direct. In this suggestive, impressionistic world, Kid Smpl’s music dwells.
Especially so given that Kid Smpl, aka Seattle-based producer Joey Butler, is only 22 years old. But such is the depth and nuance of Skylight, his debut full length. It plays like an auditory existentialist meditation, and, should you enjoy that sort of thing, it’s intoxicating.
Butler calls his style “night bus”—languid electronic music that might soundtrack a nocturnal meander on surface streets through the heart of a sleeping city. The description is apropos: Inside this hypothetical bus, the rider is secluded, enwombed, at rest while being transported. Outside, the world blurs, alive but unknowable. Music provides the intangible frame around this experience, separating the listener from reality while tethering her to it.
Given the instrumental nature of the music, Skylight’s tracklist provides its only linguistic signposts. Song names read like text-message travelogue: “Distanced,” “Nearing,” “I Think it’s Gone,” “We Fled,” “Left There.” They suggest cyclical motion—departure/arrival/departure—borne out in the music.
The music’s at once alien and comforting, stark and beautiful: A quiet place to rest after the end of the world. Synthesizers generate the primary sonics, warm, glistening chords that ebb and flow unburdened by tempo, melodies drawn as faint sketches. Skittering, unhurried drum machines insinuate rhythm rather than enforce it. Muted voices float in the ether, distorted by reverb, buried beneath drone. They say nothing but what the listener hears.
Fifteen years ago, Kid Smpl’s moody, amorphous style would’ve been referred to as “ambient electronica.” Today’s context, borrowed from Derrida and applied a few years back to UK producer Burial, is “hauntology.” Like night bus, it’s an evocative idea, conjuring ghosts of the past to inhabit the living present.
Skylight doesn’t necessarily demand the overheated mentation you’re (hopefully still) reading here. Some brains (like mine) hear its prenatal wash and rev up, eager to fill its empty spaces with analysis and appreciation. Others withdraw, set adrift on memory bliss, and to that end, Skylight makes a brilliant cocoon. Either way, fully giving into the music yields a sublime psychic equilibrium—not quite here, not quite there, so much feeling in all that nothingness.