As a kind of initial security blanket of certainty and context, I’ll start by regurgitating some odds, ends, details, and pieces of the press release of Zach Phillips’ sly inward-gazing new album “Recorded in Hell” out on Chicago’s ever-novel Lillerne Tapes. This is necessary, dear reader, if you and I are going to try to stay afloat in the abyss of epistemic-musical phenomena that this lo-fi pop record (sounds harmless right? Well, words and signs deceive!) opens in space-time. It is a sort of sequel to last year’s “Recorded In Heaven”; Phillips also runs OSR Tapes now out of Brooklyn; this album is the result of a minimalist approach to recording using only voice, keyboard, and the effects on a 4-track cassette; it has a sort of Seussian pastoral scene on the cover; the majority of the songs are under a minute and a half in length; there are twenty-nine of them.
Having deposited the facts, let’s analyze them. The approach to the album not entirely different than its predecessor; Phillips waxes a verbally dense form of introspection over a whir of arpeggiating plunks with a heavy cabaret sensibility. But whereas Recorded In Heaven was strewn with the heavily warbled underlayers of synth bleeps and engineered static, here Phillips has almost largely stopped using a hidden bag of tricks to disfigure his pop pallet. There are still moments that initiate a water-logged head trip, but now in a more distilled form. Anyone vaguely familiar with the simple glory of a Tascam 4-track can imagine Phillips twisting the direction-pan on “Interest Free” and offsetting the EQ of the vocal lines on “Teeth.” While the method of production is more straightforward, the effect tends to make the music even more abstract, more jolting. The anachronism of the stark naked school-pageant piano is enough to deliver some very weird vibes on its own.
Just below the bare 4-track epidermis of the record is Phillips slanted sense of proportion; he delivers his songs at a uniformly breakneck tempo that carries with it constant manic energy. Gone are the mid tempo grooves and the solemnity of Recorded in Heaven on cuts like “The Savoy,” “Ettiquette,” (probably my favorite of that record), and “To Paperweight.” An unparalleled lyrical presence sits atop the amphetamine pacing of the songs, one dedicated to structured thought and rational principle. The words take the form of Phillips’ soul in a refined dialogue with itself. In true dialectical form, his voice exudes internal dissonance, bouncing back and forth from abstract principle to casual observation, his words seeming carefully weighed and chosen, while his narratives bending in associative arcs.
The Law’s Antiquity abruptly begins, “Trying to imagine what I would play you if I knew who you are,” simultaneously addressing an unknown listener and examining the degree to which he, Phillips, can be aware of us, the listeners, as cognizant beings in space and time and conversely us of him on the same level. He asks, “How could you know I wanna say: disintegrate?” posing the question of how it is we can claim to share a feeling or intention that any given pop song expresses? The approach is one of stern skepticism toward the power of a shared musical language. This is why I don’t find the the manic feeling that I described earlier to be the essential takeaway of this album; “Recorded in Hell” is more concerned with communicating a series of questions and assertions than a feeling at all. I see the deliberately homespun method of recording in part as a frame to help simplify the discoveries of each song. In each one, Phillips sculpts an empirical logic though which the assertions are built on thoughts and observation that flow directly from himself, turning away from the reference points of our musical language.
In some cases, as in the title track the questions yield no concrete answer, leaving us imprisoned in our own solipsistic hell. Like “The Law’s Antiquity,” “Recorded In Hell” captures Phillips’ search for traces of his identity within the songs he’s written. It starts off in true Kinks’ fashion with a series of character portraits, but quickly turns more bleak when Zach fails to see a verifiable character in the reflection of what he’s written. He concludes, “Yes of hello hello hello this is only a game and everything makes it laugh/especially the minor select/the parts of love/that just don’t reflect/the major living dots that we won’t connect/so you can call me in hell when you’re done with heck/then we’ll decide what to do.” Despite the suffering that the song’s title espouses, there’s a duality present here that pervades the rest of the album. The darkness of searching for absolutes and finding only ambiguity is offset by the plain fact that Phillips takes a simple delight in his own thoughts. Just like the juxtaposition of the cartoon field on the cover with the album title, or even the pairing of that album title with its predecessor “Recorded in Heaven,” a light playfulness is always present to balance out the album’s skeptical underpinnings and gloom. For the listener, Phillips has allowed a bread crumb trail into his thoughts. Though he has ultimately deemed his own line of inquiry something of a fool’s errand, there’s a therapeutic, repetitive joy in pausing each song and restarting it over and over again until you have deciphered every last lyric.