Some welcome news in a season that could certainly use some: Circlesquare is back. Circlesquare is the ongoing brainchild of Vancouver, British Columbia’s Jeremy Shaw, now living in Berlin. Don’t be surprised, though, if he doesn’t sound like any of his citymates: for the length of his career, Circlesquare has never sounded quite like anyone but Circlesquare.
Last heard from over two years ago, Circlesquare set hearts racing with a set of records released between 1999 and 2006 on Trevor Jackson’s Output label, home to a diverse roster of electronic outsiders like Four Tet, Black Strobe, DK7, Playgroup, and Colder. His 2003 album Pre-Earthquake Anthem came as a revelation: rather than the fluo-funk of his better known labelmates, or the digitized minimalism of the day, Circlesquare came on like a molasses drip laced with Codeine, roping in such unlikely references as Leonard Cohen, Tones on Tail, Pole, and Angelo Badalamenti. Boomkat called it “dense, considered stuff — mixing up a brooding and pounding melancholy, bass-fuelled sensory exploration, and purest minimal electronic meltdown.” 2006’s Fight Sounds EP was even stranger. It moved like snails set on fire, dousing steel guitar in acid sequences and warped keyboard riffing, all overlaid with Jeremy’s intimate, ominous voice.
The records — and just as importantly, an impressive live show — helped Circlesquare establish a rabid following. And then Output went under, and Jeremy went all but AWOL. In 2007, rumors began floating around about demos for a new Circlesquare album, one even fuller and more fully realized than his previous material. The rumors were true: that material would go on to become Songs About Dancing and Drugs, an album that finds Shaw sounding more complex, melancholy, and invigorating than ever before. This is the real deal, the kind of album that comes around once in forever; an album for late nights and long drives and breakups and lovemaking, for cold mornings and matted-velvet comedowns. Oh yes, for comedowns.
The title is self-sufficient. “I named the album in the tradition of Leonard Cohen, Talking Heads, Big Black, etc.,” says Jeremy. “I always loved the directness of Songs from a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, More Songs About Buildings and Food, Songs About Fucking — Dancing, drugs and science seemed to be the most prevalent themes of the album, as usual, so I went with the first two.”
But this isn’t your usual “dance” music. These are opiated rave-ups, like early bleep techno chopped and screwed, or shoegaze in an electric exoskeleton. Beaten down, scuffed-toe bass meditations wrapped in desert blues and dub delay — ambient music with an anti-pop brain and a rock’n’roll heart.
“It’s the first time since forever ago that a lot of the recorded versions got played live before the album was completed,” says Jeremy, “so they definitely changed with the live show, and what was working out there.” Two members of Circlesquare’s live band, drummer Dale Butterfield and guitarist Trevor Larson, also aided in the studio production, with their work often cut up and recomposed collaboratively. (Nathan Whitford, the group’s fourth member, runs visuals for the live show.) As a result the music feels unusually alive — looser and more dynamic than ever before, with no visible seam where circuitry enters the bloodstream (or vice-versa). For all its tensions and negations, the music is all about balance, with liquid guitars, corroded drums, and Jeremy’s inimitable voice circling each other like wary atoms.
Unlike bands that wear their singers like decorations, Jeremy’s voice, deep and rich, provides the music’s center. It never dominates; instead, his whisper-growl, teetering between speech and song, nestles deep inside like a voice inside your head. And unlike singers that toss out words like afterthoughts, Jeremy’s lyrics create their own kind of gravity. What sound at first like stray images and passing paranoia come together to create the picture of an unstable world torn by a time-space faultline. “Today could be then or last week,” “Everything’s moving so fast,” “Answers go sideways,” “Everything looks like light-speed” — Lasers and satellites pepper a world that feels as frozen as a snow globe, with its dazed subjects dancing and drifting aimlessly in search of something like redemption.
These are songs about promises broken and potential squandered, of desperate boredom and revelations of the mundane. It’s an album about coming down and staying down, about “the age of bathtub chemistry” where they took “all the love out of the ecstasy/ And now nothing is strong enough/ But lasers mainlined straight into brain receptors.” Yeah, it’s dark. But you can sense Jeremy’s finger on the laser’s switch. You can smell the ozone off the spark. It’s right there in the opening song, where hitting bottom cracks open a world of light:
This is it, this is ours, here we go Here we go.