In addition, as in the case of the Sufjan album, the Pitchfork review of this record really pissed me off. One line in particular: the reviewer lists the ‘hallmarks of [Ashworth’s] sound’ as ‘twinkling melodies’ and ‘sustained minor chords’, even though there are hardly any minor chords on this or any Ashworth record. It may seem like I'm being awfully pedantic here, but this is important because, for me, one of the actual hallmarks of his sound is precisely this absence of minor chords. While the use of technical jargon is by no means necessary for music criticism, it seems a little perverse for a reviewer to choose to deploy a technical term like this in such an utterly erroneous way, and I think it suggests a rather cursory engagement on their part. (Perhaps I’m just aggrieved at the Pitchfork review for employing what is now my most hated review cliché: ‘[Insert album name] feels like a logical progression from their past work’. Euuurrrgh, ban this filth!)
What Ashworth does on Nephew in the Wild, as on previous records, is deliver concise epistolary stories within a kind of ‘deadpan’ sonic medium of organs, electric pianos and drum machines. I’ve described his previous project —Casiotone for the Painfully Alone — in terms of voicemail messages, on which the cycling of major key harmonies (or ‘pre-recorded’ progressions) added to a sense of detachment, or the performative ‘withholding’ of a composed message, suggesting currents of untraceable feeling beneath. While his Advance Base songs switch similarly between first-, second- and third-person perspectives, there is a greater sense of authority in the lyrics, which tends to shift the focus from the singing voice itself onto the people it describes or addresses (with the understandable exception of Jody Weinmann’s guest vocal on ‘My Love For You Is Like A Puppy Underfoot’).
As with so many of Ashworth’s songs, the record catalogues vulnerable people, often distinctly underprivileged people, as they endure (or are broken by) the indignities and injustices of life: the marginalised protagonists of ‘Pamela’ and ‘Summon Satan’, the absent title character in ‘Nephew in the Wild’ and the absent addressee in ‘Trisha Please Come Home’. Alongside these songs are more mundane episodes that nevertheless hide a similar sense of the burden of the world. The effect of Ashworth’s deadpan settings — the warm but slightly distant glow of the chord progressions as they shed a momentary light on an individual in crisis — is one of levelling. However large or small the problems faced in these songs, they are all real and important to the protagonist in questions, and worthy of note.
Throughout all of this, the sustained major chords represent the life, hope and desire for happiness that underlines all of these songs. Not just a disinterested medium for the communication of a story — like a news report or radio interview — these songs offer a unique response to what is one of the fundamental questions in my recent research project: ‘Why sing?’. In this case, the very singing of these episodes is an affirmation of their importance, among all the tragic and banal events that unfold across the world every day, and this is why they are sung in a major key. For me, the clearest example of this is ‘The Only Other Girl From Back Home’, which describes a relationship between two friends in just such terms: the need to have someone to speak to, if only to affirm the value of one’s speech, or one’s own ability to articulate one’s experiences.