You expect a record titled The Origin of My Depression to be dramatic, even melodramatic. You expect it to be filled with bold pronouncements. You don’t necessarily expect it to move you, to ravage you, like this one does.
Xandra Metcalfe, the Australian recording artist who works under the name UBOA, makes riveting and often unsettling musique concrete that falls somewhere between Per Mission and Loscil or Purgist and Knurl. Her last outing, 2018’s excellent The Sky May Be, was a tangled knot that found itself at the intersection of drone-ish ambience and harsh noise. It was both unnerving and oddly eloquent. The new record, however, is different, if mostly in the subjects it tackles, and how closes it places the listener to the bloodflow.
The first thing you’ll notice is the cover.
Metcalfe posts an enigmatic photo of blanket-covered legs in a hospital bed and a patterned drape on the cover of her new record, which, by the way, she self-released and is out today; the photo was taken at St. Vincent following a suicide attempt. That’s your starting point – and it’s no less unflinching in its directness from there.
The record traffics in a kind of ambient setting that’s far more nuanced, at times even deceptively skeletal, than The Sky May Be. The opener, the somber “Detransitioning,” prominently features a trickling shower of piano measures and Metcalfe’s unexpectedly doe-like voice, half-mumbled. Three tracks in, on “Lay Down and Rot,” though, the static eruptions break out of their holding pens, followed by a litany of Metcalfe’s blood-curdling screams. This is the precise opposite of easy listening. And Metcalfe sets about deconstructing this strange menagerie, these poles at odds with themselves, as she chronicles in plain words – somewhat literally – the origins of her depression. It’s magical, riveting stuff.
Then, there is “An Angel of Great and Terrible Light,” the seven-track LP’s centerpiece. The composition – in Metcalfe’s own words, “a discussion about transness and theology, notedly ‘God’s Plan,’ not to mention abusive love” – is just fucking hands-down brilliant from the get-go, featuring plodding, but simple, percussion that drives everything ever forward and emotive but mostly spare acoustic guitar that lends even more immediacy and intent. About halfway through its roughly eight-minute running time, the song violently expands with barking, distorted electric guitars and, again, Metcalfe’s roars. You’ll be amazed your headphones aren’t blown apart by the spectacle of it all.
The record closes, oft-melancholic, with “Misspent Youth,” which Metcalfe calls “a story about regretting coming out to late, even if coming out earlier would be worse.” The sense of remorse and, to ethereal degrees, resignation is palpable. Though the song can sound, sonically speaking, airy, its content is leaden with cement. And, though it’s a quiet way to end an LP that is alarmingly consumed with its sense of the noise it’s making, it’s also bizarrely fitting, a coda complete with the sound, at the end, subtly, of Metcalfe seemingly setting down her instruments and walking away.
This is incredibly powerful and incredibly personal music and I can see why someone with Metcalfe’s reputation for construction chose the self-release route. This is not an neat and clean LP for a label to sell to the infected masses. There’s a great deal of chatter going on in the Western world these days about the ramifications of mental illness, as if it were something to be quarantined, to be isolated, to be contained, to protect from “the people” for the greater good. Metcalfe poses a brilliant other, in more ways than one. “Let’s hand ourselves over to it,” you can almost imagine her saying throughout the new record. Like I said, it’s far from easy listening. But listening is most certainly worth it.