Kentucky post-rock outfit Slint had a very short run of activity. Singer Brian McMahan and drummer Britt Walford had seen local success in their early teens with punk vehicle Squirrel Bait. Experienced as they were in the scene at barely college age, the two became discontented with punk, and felt the need to branch out to a new sound.
Much has been said of the transformative period in guitar music the late 80s and early 90s were. They had no idea back then, but Slint would contribute to that conversation in a huge way with Spiderland. In fact, the band had already broken up before the 1991 release of their opus. Here’s a sonically forward-thinking record that’ll become deeply personal to legions of retrospective listeners, and it just about exists in a vacuum. Tragic.
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The LP was immediately steeped in mythology and rumour due to the split. Fans sought to dig out contextual clues from the album’s content; everyone who heard it had a theory. Hell, there was even those dedicated to combing Kentucky trying to locate the members. But an album cannot live off curiosity alone. This hush-hush project with no radio hits, no music videos, no supporting tour, no minimum requirements at all… did not survive the test of time based solely on depth of conspiracy. Something’s inside.
Opener ‘Breadcrumb Trail’s title could well describe the soothing intro of plinky pinch-harmonics laid down in the direction of the song’s narrative. Brian describes meeting a fortune teller at a carnival, and is enticed not by the prospect of learning his future, but by the day itself. The two ride a roller coaster, and the message in the imagery becomes clear. The tonal split down the middle: spoken-word over melody and then mucky, degenerate noise will be heard for years to come (see La Dispute, The World Is…, and a hundred other bands) but remains in perfect form here in the “source material”, if you like.
It’s not the strongest story of the record, but it is important in establishing the textures you’ll come to love. I’ll be clear on this, in 1991, there was no such thing as ‘post-rock’. I also cannot brush past ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ without recommending the stellar Lance Bangs documentary of the same name. Essential work all round.
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The iconically cantankerous ‘Nosferatu Man’ is allegory for maladjustment. Our narrator makes effort to appear to love “his queen”, but feels the need to escape from her and be free each night. Every time he returns, however, it’s harder to conceal his resentment. The violent, screeching guitar that bookends the lyrical portions, mixed with the math-rock time signatures create a flammable backdrop for the imagery overlaid. This one is volatile.
The slightly detuned, lumbering chords of ‘Don, Aman’ soundtrack the titular character, as he mills around the outside of a party he couldn’t feel any less connected to. The song opens up a touch, with immediacy to the playing, as Don decides to fortify himself and face the rest of the evening indoors. He soon finds that’s he uncomfortable again, as if the room, everything in it, and him, are completely incompatible. “Don left, and drove / and howled, and laughed…at himself / He felt he knew exactly what that was.” The last whimpering breath is pure exasperation, as if the sound of Don himself the next morning, realising his loneliness.
‘Washer’ is the monologue of a man who’s decided to move on, and is attempting to tie up loose ends. Whether it’s the end of a relationship or something much more morbid (implied by “I won’t be back here, though we may meet again” and a few other odd phrasings) there’s a feeling of calm in the words that only serves to unnerve. Whatever is happening, the mind is well and truly made up about it. The track is dutiful, considered, and at peace. It’s also simultaneously the complete epitome of Spiderland: eerie and borderline inhuman, but not of its own volition.
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Shortest offering and instrumental ‘For Dinner…’ would be a cooldown on another project. In this listing though, it’s an invitation to feel the same isolation that thematically binds the rest of the songs. This isn’t a skip, if you want to know how post-rock became a mostly instrumental genre then I suggest you get an earful of the blueprint. Don’t worry by the way, “your” Slint song is a softball: it more resembles indie than anything else available on the record.
I still remember the first time I heard ‘Good Morning, Captain’. I think a lot of people who love this album do. The brunt of the closer is pure Hitchcockian suspense, hinging on an ever advancing bassline. The story follows a shipwreck survivor, seemingly over the worst of it, inexplicably terrified at the sight of a child. In the context of the album, it can be deduced that the boy he encounters is himself, or his innocence. The Captain only realises upon losing his ship, that he’s lost much more.
The ever-advancing bass line’s energy is finally matched in the song’s humongous, chill-inducing coda. Brian McMahan owns the character of the Captain, fervently and repeatedly screaming “I miss you” at his departed youth. In the aforementioned documentary, Walford stated that McMahan was “dripping wet” with sweat, and may have vomited after the take.
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Slint bowing out, though unfortunate for listeners, was almost definitely for the best. McMahan actually checked himself into hospital post-recording. He very much needed to sort himself out more than he needed to be in a band. I’m glad he did. You don’t write an album of essays on feeling totally alienated in all facets of life by accident, it was real. Guitarist David Pajo went on to work with Will Oldham, and Tortoise; and Walford played drums with The Breeders. They never disappeared fully, or forever. They’ve even reunited for a couple of stints to play Spiderland in full, now that the world appreciates it better.
Either way, I think you can call it a career and retire very happy indeed if one of your albums proves to be an undeniable benchmark of genre-establishing work, still beloved thirty years after the fact. Tick.