The Virtual Natural Of ML Buch’s Suntub
ML Buch’s second album Suntub somehow captures the feeling of the early internet era without any obvious signifiers. It’s all in the smooth surfaces, the curved lines, the sleek contours. Even its 55-minute length, nearly double that of the Danish artist’s explicitly “online” 2020 debut Skinned, conjures a faint memory of the CD era and its bloated runtimes. The guitars are impossibly lustrous, there is an alarming lack of bass, and the melodies must have been thought about long and hard by the classically trained Buch. Over this glistening, hyper-real music, the singer affects the monotone of someone in a state of stupefied awe. Her lyrics lean towards the visceral, sometimes even approaching body horror, and yet even nature seems to fold itself up to fit her 2D vision; on the haunting opening cut “Pan Over the Hill,” she sings of being “splattered on the film of sky.”
Suntub somehow convinces the listener that the surface is the depths. This is a hard album to put your finger on, and across its runtime I was variously reminded of the experimental guitarist Joshua Chuquimia Crampton, Todd Rundgren’s Dumb & Dumber soundtrack, Judee Sill’s self-titled album, and Boston’s “More Than A Feeling,” whose melody is echoed in the early highlight “Flames Shards Goo.” Yet one unexpected reference kept coming to mind: the Shins, whose first album Oh, Inverted World taught me how to find psychedelia in superficially “ordinary” music. This is not an album about the internet — it’s an album about nature, about the human body, about physical experience. Somehow it gains friction from being written in the language of hyperreality and posthumanism.
Buch’s lyricism has both sharpened and become more elusive since the comparatively obvious millennial poesies found on Skinned. We hear phrases that have not existed in the English language before, and as with fellow Scandinavians ABBA and Jens Lekman, the writing may gain something from English not being the artist’s first language. That’s one explanation for lines like “high speed calm air tonight” and “hear the spider spin,” which are words no one would ever think to put together and yet conjure images so tactile the listener might be dazzled. Either way, we’re clearly dealing with a surfeit of imagination, which shines brightest when she leans into the fructuous imagery that fascinated Kurt Cobain towards the tail end of the Nirvana catalog. (The album’s catchiest and most memorable chorus is just a repeated chant of “bladder flower wombs.”)
Suntub is a phenomenon in experimental circles and on Ambient Twitter right now. Its most ardent fans seem to be in their 20s or early 30s, old enough to remember a time before the internet but young enough to be raised by it. These are people for whom a 2D evocation of nature has an inherent sentimental value. For me, it was the Mata Nui Online Game, the third-generation Pokémon games, KidPix, and that episode of Treehouse Of Horror where Homer gets stuck in the third dimension.
Suntub doesn’t evoke the awe I feel when I’m out in nature. It evokes the awe I felt then, pointing and clicking and widening my eyes in childish delight. Somehow a digital tree rendered in blocky circa-2001 graphics felt more tree-like than a real tree; only later did I learn the word “hyperreality.” Plenty of artists evoke the hyperreal — entire genres are built on it — but they usually do it through obvious cues like start-up sounds. Suntub’s vocabulary feels weirdly timeless, some kind of chimera of trends in glossy and sophisticated pop since 1982 or so, and yet the impression is unmistakable. This is the awe of the real world written in the language of the virtual, and it feels like some kind of milestone in millennial music — an album I’ve been waiting for my whole life without knowing it.