Recorded during islands of relative calm as songwriter Clarke Sondermann cared for a partner in the wake of a stage IV cancer diagnosis, Lowlight Visions was never intended to be a document of grief or mourning. The thirteen-track collection became a kind of life raft, a way to float above the immense pain and preserve the deep love felt for his ailing partner. “The songs come from the intersection of tremendous love and tremendous fear,” he says, “and though the fear is very present, communicating the love was my intention.” The Washboard Abs set that tremendous love adrift in arrangements that, while never quite detaching themselves from a formula of twinkling, finger-picked guitars entangling gently over breakbeat drums, promote a quietly propulsive healing. Sondermann and co. process the uncertainty of illness by putting order to chaos—a form of ultra-harmonious musical housekeeping.
If there’s any criticism to be made of this particular coping mechanism on Lowlight Visions, it’s that Sondermann’s vision is perhaps too well realized to reveal any of the negative emotions bubbling beneath the surface without seriously digging into the lyrics. Put this album on in the background, allow the placid surroundings and ambient textures to swirl around you, and you’ll come away with a strong feeling of romantic nostalgia rather than a broken heart. However, this may be exactly what The Washboard Abs intended to create: an escapist fantasy from the very real pain that creates lyrics like “Can I play dumb / Or try forgetting / The fear of ending?” Though you may have to detach yourself from the beautiful surface to hear it, those moments of sheer emotional terror are well worth listening for.
But if one is to take the purely escapist route, The Washboard Abs’ cinematic, sentimental vision is more than enough to sweep you away. They’re masterful at creating cross-hatched guitar arpeggios peppered with melodic fragments and layering percussion around them in a race to fill the gaps. Certain tracks, like latecomer “Brittle Bones,” go the extra mile in their rhythmic free-for-all, ending up in a gently pulsating landscape not dissimilar to a weepier Stereolab or Tycho. Lest you accuse the Abs of simply piling on rhythmic flourishes, they even succeed at creating some impressively ghostly soundscapes on the haunting “Pareidolia.” For the most part, however, Lowlight Visions is a record concerned primarily with dreamy drift. The circular melodies they craft on tracks like highlight “Return to You” sound like they could go on forever, rotating endlessly in hypnotic bliss.
While Lowlight Visions may not immediately evoke the heart-wrenching loss that spurred The Washboard Abs to action, it can provide the same kind of shelter that it gave its creators. Lost in the chiming of guitars and the delicate mellotron, vibraphone, and synthesizer ornamentations adorning its brittle edges, you might find the sweet solace that’s been eluding you too.