The Physics of Meaning’s self-titled disc is baffling to me on a number of levels. The full-length CD opens with the crush of feedback and noise that poses an immediate threat to the listener’s ear drums. Despite being released on a small (but highly respected) music label out of Chapel Hill, NC, The Physics of Meaning features an incredible roster of great musicians like Dale Baker (Sixpence None The Richer), songwriter David Karsten Daniels, Chris Colbert (who’s appeared on seemingly millions of discs in some form or the other), and a host of others. The CD attempts to answer in its 11 tracks the questions, “What does it mean to be alive and how can we reconcile our past selves with who we are now?” Perplexing stuff indeed, set to a musical palate that sounds kind of like apocalyptic, disjointed rock-postrock with singer/songwriter sensibilities. And perhaps most surprising of all, The Physics of Meaning pulls off this ambitious project masterfully, much like the full-length CD released earlier this year by labelmates The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers. Ambitious musically, introspective lyrically, and impressive corporately, The Physics of Meaning is quite the triumphant collection of songs that, taken either as singles or as a complete package, startles the unsuspecting listener with its depth.
Officially, The Physics of Meaning is Daniel Hart (who’s worked with Ester Drang and The Polyphonic Spree, to drop some more names), and producer Alex Lazara. Both men add their specific flourishes to this CD, but in the end, it’s Hart’s soul that shines through, as he is the main songwriter on this highly personal project. The loose lyrical theme traces the memories and regrets of a child growing up to face the paradoxes of a strange world, with the adult ultimately casting a wistful glance back at childhood for one last grasp at his elusive identity. Indeed, any listener struggling with issues of identity, soul-searching, or reconciling change in one’s surroundings with the resultant change in one’s personality will do well to listen closely to the lyrics on this CD.
But, before I overdo the social analysis of the fertile lyrics, I’d better stick to the question that many music listeners would be asking…”Does it sound good?”. To answer bluntly, “Yes”, and this is where Lazara’s contributions on The Physics of Meaning shine. While Hart’s songwriting style is fully formed, with strong melodies and complex and tense chord patterns, Lazara’s production layers dense levels of sounds on the recordings. The opening track “Charles Wallace, Where Have You Gone?” is a great example of the interplay between Hart’s epic songwriting and Lazara’s huge sounds. After that opening storm of noise, the song-proper begins with an aggressively distorted drum machine spazzing out stuttered rhythms, while Hart’s chord progressions bring the listener to the edge of their seat as the song builds. The song explodes into a fury of heavy drums, layered vocals, keyboards, and guitars, only to dissipate in a keyboard loop. Even in simpler songs, such as “Small Towns and Invisible People” (great title, by the way), Lazara layers keyboards with live drums, drum machines, and various other sounds as Hart quaintly sings his tender lyrics. You’d expect a song called “Resurrection and Crucifixion” to sound dramatic, and it does, as it feigns to be a straight-forward rock song, only to thrust itself into epic territory with its soaring chorus and feverish string parts. Another highlight of The Physics of Meaning is the Radiohead-esque “Manhattan is an Island”. Featuring light electronics, backwards guitar accents, falsetto vocals, and a generally wistful melody, “Manhattan is an Island” soothes with its linear melody and floating sonics. The technical drumming of “The Crystal Ball is Cracking” steals the show on another song, even with the dark melody and foreboding supporting guitar and keyboard sounds. In fact, the drumming throughout The Physics of Meaning is stellar, and Baker again shows himself to be at the top of his game with his technical fills and creative rhythms. “The Inconceivable Nature of Vizzini” floats effortlessly with its light drum loops, picked acoustic guitar, and delicate keyboards. “Down at Columbia and Cameron” is another song full of complex and technical drums, grooves, guitar parts, and even the vocal melody skitters up and down the musical scale. “The Fountain of Youth Dries Up in an Election year” is a favourite of mine lyrically, due to its longing references to Florida, my home state and the place of my idyllic childhood…which the song seems to be referencing in part as well. Finally, “A Slowly Tilting Planet” brings The Physics of Meaning full circle, as it addresses the main character introduced in the first track about the conclusions of the journey for self-exploration. Hart’s vocal performance (I’m assuming it’s Hart…the liner notes don’t specify) is strongest here, as the singer sings nakedly at first with only a simple keyboard to back him up. The song builds, adding various elements, at times sounding like a Lennon song with the simple production of drums, bass, and keys, only to fade into a short, psychedelic time warp of noise and mayhem…the same noise that introduced the CD 47 minutes earlier.
If this review sounds lacks a little cohesion, it’s because The Physics of Meaning is so overwhelming to write about in such a short review. From the deep and poignant lyrics, which address so eloquently the search for meaning and identity in such a confusing and neurotic world, to the complex music and production, to the smart songwriting and impressive performances, The Physics of Meaning is a powerful artistic expression. The lyrics are interesting enough to impress social scientists and philosophers, while the music is strong enough to win over people only interested in the sound. The Physics of Meaning is one ambitious and challenging project that hits the mark, and will appeal to fans of The Flaming Lips, Ester Drang, Pedro the Lion, Radiohead, and The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, among others. Highly recommended.