Welcome to Backtrack, Sam Hockley-Smith’s new Stereogum column dedicated to a remembrance of great things past, of important records situated in the middle ground between Legendary Reissue Status and yesterday’s news. Backtrack will unfold as a crate-digger’s journey [or: in relation to itself], drawing connections to previous stops, celebrating artists’ seminal platters. It’s borne out of love for the unrivaled power of the album format, and what happens when we think about great ones. We began with the Microphones’ new millennial classic The Glow Pt. 2 and continued to its fellow K Records-release Advisory Committee. We stay in Olympia today, with Unwound’s Leaves Turn Inside You.
At one point midway through college, I left for a year because things were feeling claustrophobic. When I came back, I got really freaked out about living in a small town again. Olympia is by no means tiny, but it’s not especially big either. You live the life you want to live there, whatever that might be. Some dudes I knew didn’t have heat, even in the winter. There was a popular off-campus house that was so off-campus that to get to the college you had to take a row boat. One guy owned a bunch of houses that he painted completely black. The rumor was that if you traced their locations on a map, they’d form a pentagram. There were like two bars worth going to and only one of them had hard liquor. I came back with a romantic idea about this — after suffering from too many options in larger cities, I assumed I’d welcome the chance to go to the same places day-after-day. I’d become a regular at an establishment! I’d walk in and they’d just know what I wanted! The concept of virtually living on a bar stool seemed really romantic, but I never really got around to it.
One night, sitting on a friend’s roof, he casually mentioned that while I’d been gone he’d spent a lot of time drinking beer under a water tower and throwing rocks at it. There was something about that — the concept of a smart guy, fresh-faced in his early 20s, spending his evenings throwing rocks at something because there was nothing else to do. It wasn’t depressing so much as … frustrating. What happens when you get too old to fight against stasis, but you’re too young to settle? My friend threw rocks. Some people get deep into drinking, get shitty jobs, or just rage against the life they’ve built without ever really making the necessary changes to be happy. In the case of Unwound, another Olympia band (I’m moving on from Olympia in next week’s column, I promise), you make 2001’s Leaves Turn Inside You , a sprawling, tense double album that comes about ten years into your career. Then you call it quits.
Leaves Turn Inside You is nominally a post-rock record. Songs stretch out and build dramatically into explosions of tense strings that sound like a score to an imagined epic. Lyrics are obtuse when they’re there at all. It’s a serious sound, but being this serious has its pitfalls. When it’s done well, like it is on this album, it’s close to perfect. When it’s not? Well, then you’re just a band with a shitty collection of over-long tracks that no one really cares about. In post-rock, mediocrity is worse than being terrible — and Leaves Turn Inside You is one of those records that makes a whole lot of decent post-rock records seem mediocre.
Though it was a step forward for the band, sound-wise it’s really without precedent in Unwound’s catalog. Even in their earliest records, it felt like they were building toward something — the band’s 1996 album Repetition featured a song called “Corpse Pose,” which is endlessly hypnotic. It’s unsettling and rigid and if you’re looking for a direct line from Unwound’s earlier work to Leaves, it’d probably be that song. But where “Corpse Pose” acts as a clearly defined, rugged single that constructs a world for itself, Leaves Turn Inside You is a frustrated studio gem — the product of methodical studio tinkering, and the sound of what “Corpse Pose” would be if it was endlessly labored over.
In my memory, Leaves Turn Inside You is one of those records that I read about before I actually heard. Without hearing even a second of it, I’d already decided that it was breaking the boundaries of music so intensely that my life would never be the same after hearing it. Turns out my life was almost exactly the same after hearing it. The main difference being that I got really into Unwound. Looking back now, I took a lot more from it than I thought. It proved that frustration didn’t have to mean anger and stasis didn’t have to be sad.
Some part of me wants to ask what would have happened had they stayed together, but that’s a pointless exercise. The band recently released a live compilation that’s a pretty good reminder of how great they could be, but I’m not sure where else they could have gone. The point is that as frustrating and mind numbing and purgatorial as being trapped in a life or a belief system you don’t believe in anymore is, that frustration eventually ends. My friend quit going to the water tower. You hit a wall, then you hit another wall, and then another wall, and then you either mutate or you give up. With Leaves Turn Inside You, Unwound mutated, proving that breaking up and giving up aren’t the same at all.