Let’s get the big news out of the way: the new The Soft Pink Truth album, Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?, is different. It does not sound like the previous four The Soft Pink Truth (TSPT) records. All of those—Why Pay More? (2015, self-released); Why Do the Heathen Rage? (2014, Thrill Jockey); Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Soft Pink Truth? (2004, Tigerbeat6); and Do You Party? (2002, Accidental Records)—were goofily fun in a slightly-to-frequently off-kilter way. However, Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase, which was released digitally May 1st, isn’t really fun per se. In fact, at times the record is emphatically not-fun.
Instead of being goofy the record is, dare I say, serious. It sounds less like the fun musical project of Drew Daniel, PhD, Associate Professor of English Literature at Johns Hopkins University, than of a piece with Dr. Daniel’s published academic work, such as his 2013 book The Melancholy Assemblage: Affect and Epistemology in the English Renaissance. Which is hardly a criticism of the record. It is simply to say that Shall We Go On should be approached, headspace-wise, less like music to shake one’s ass to than a monograph best read while stone sober. In other words:
That TSPT’s music is off-kilter is to be expected. Daniel is perhaps best-known (musically or otherwise) for being half of the experimental electronic duo Matmos. In addition to their work with Björk, Matmos is famous for making music from everything from surgical sounds to plastic trash. The TSPT project began with a dare: Matthew Herbert challenged Daniel to make a house record, and the result was Do You Party? Though hardly a traditional house record—it’s a tad glitchy, as “Coat Check” illustrates—Do You Party? is a blast.
However, the latest TSPT album, which takes its title from the Bible (Romans 6:1 to be precise), is less a house record than it is a choral minimalist ambient composition. I hesitate to use the word “electronic” to describe Shall We Go On, because the album sounds much more like Brian Eno’s Music for Airports or a Steve Reich compositionthan deep house (Mr. Fingers “Mystery of Love”) or even a microhouse (“Tendency” by Jan Jelinek) music. Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase is not a record to bob’s one head to, despite its occasionally head-bobbing moments. It is a record to contemplate, to be experienced, to envelop; it is a record to be played in response to and as a guard against the worst the world has to offer. It is very beautiful.
Much sets Shall We Go On apart from the other TSPT albums: only two tracks have beats; the album is generally very quiet; Shall We Go On begins with a lone female voice singing the title of the album, over and over; the album seems to be light on samples and pianos play a big part; and most of all, Shall We Go On is very much a communal record.
Where previous TSPT albums were the result of Daniel’s alone time in the studio, plus varying levels of support from other musicians, the creation of Shall We Go On was, in contrast, “a promiscuous and communal undertaking,” per Thrill Jockey’s description of the record. Contributions from Daniel’s collaborators—including Angel Deradoorian, Andrew Bernstein, and Daniel’s partner (as well as the other half of Matmos) M.C. Schmidt—led to “a genuine dialogue with other musicians” and the creation of a true ensemble album.
In the same spirit of communality, I thought it appropriate to chat with Daniel about the record, rather than write a one-sided piece that simply reacts to it. He was good enough to spend almost an hour on Skype with me; the notes of our conversation have been edited, condensed, and paraphrased where necessary for clarity.
How are you doing / COVID-19 etc., how has it been spending so much time at home?
There’s a sweet domestic side…but also a horizon of dread. I’m still teaching once a week, and MC has helped me record my lectures.
What are you reading? Listening to?
Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Zola’s La Curee (The Kill). In addition, the nonfiction book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Martin is reading a book he found on Amazon called A Journey to the Matmos.
Let’s talk about the record’s origins; it’s quite different from your other work.
The last TSPT record, Why Do the Heathen Rage?, led to a sort of crisis in faith in the project. Because I wore makeup while performing live, there was a sort of clown aspect to the work. I began to not believe in the work anymore, especially after Trump was elected. I felt alienated from the mode of performance that I’d chosen.
Editor’s aside: Why Do the Heathen Rage?, which also takes its title from the Bible, was meant as a kind of queer, house music troll of black metal and the often-homophobic black metal scene (Daniel is a black metal fan, somewhat incongruously). While touring for the record, he performed in corpse paint.
I was disheartened by the amount of perverse middlebrow pseudosophistication he was seeing in the culture. I realized that hitting reset and going back to Matthew Herbert’s challenge to make a house record could help. After all, house music DNA = ecstatic piano chords + singing. That’s how I thought of bringing others into the project, specifically real singers. I felt comfortable working intimately with singers on this album. Ultimately, I put together a sort of virtual ensemble, at a distance. Shall We Go On is a communal record mediated by distance.
Aside #2: We of course discussed the, ah, fortuitous timing of Shall We Go On Sinning’s release. Putting out a communal record that was recorded collaboratively but at a distance during the time of COVID-19—when many are #AloneTogether, holding Zoom happy hours and giving each other a wide berth in the street—is almost too perfect. No matter that Daniel & co. recorded the record more than a year ago and only recently released it.
On the record’s sound vis-a-vis his other work as TSPT and his work with Matmos:
Formally and sonically, the record isn’t like anything I’ve ever made before; it’s outside the frame of my previous work. With TSPT, I’ve been on my own, but this record was much more communal. It was really difficult to make something so minimal. To compare it to my work in Matmos, Matmos records are conceptually minimal but the work itself is maximal.
Note: Matmos’s albums tend to be organized around a central theme or sound, literally. A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure used the sounds of plastic surgery; washing machine noises are the foundation of Ultimate Care II.
The entire Soft Pink Truth project is about a kind of queer ambivalence toward dance music. Dance music is both liberating, but for me, it’s also a source of personal complexity, since it relates to my coming out. Moreover, humor and ambivalence to genre is inherent to queerness. It is a sort of trickster relation to genre.
With the TSPT project, I make dance music that doesn’t feel obligated to norms.
Do you think of this record as a set of songs or as a suite?
I think of the record in terms of an LP, with two sides. The songs on the first side of the record are discrete songs, whereas the second side (starting with “So”— “So That Grace May Increase”) is a single suite.
Each side of the record acts as a formal mirror. I had longform listening in mind when I made the record. But I didn’t want to just make ambient music, so I added elements to the record that are akin to a fire alarm going off in a yoga class.
I don’t just want to be an asshole; introducing non-relaxing elements to otherwise relaxing songs is a way of reflecting my ambivalence about the project and sticking to norms.
Let’s talk about the record’s title.
I wanted the album’s title to hold its content. I’m not a religious person, so I didn’t pick the phrase to spread the gospel. But the question remains: what if I changed?
Notably, in the New International Version of the Bible, the following line is “By no means!”
…which brings me to your being an academic. How do you see your life as an academic and academic interests being reflected in or influencing your work as The Soft Pink Truth?
Though my academic work has impacted the time I have to make records, I try to keep the Jekkyl and Hyde of my life separate. As a teacher, I draw on my musical performance experience while teaching. But I’m glad Martin is the frontman of Matmos.
Overall, I’m reluctant to bring “the armor of education” to justify my soundwork. I enjoy others’ interpretations of my work but is uninterested in overthinking it himself.
Going back to our discussion of ambivalence as a hallmark of queerness, music is was to escape the tricky humanities stuff. To quote the great Sister Sledge, it’s good to get lost in the music. And ultimately, the album is not a cauldron of despair and self-hatred. It’s meant to be calming. It’s a jacuzzi for the mind.