In a recent interview, Kyle Bobby Dunn told Fracture Compound that he heard “the truth” in his favorite music, a truth that he associates with the “brutal honest beauty” of certain classical compositions. Kyle doesn’t spell out what he thinks the truth is, but I suspect that Ways of Meaning provides a clue.
Kyle Bobby Dunn’s music is beautiful for a lot of reasons, some obvious and others a little more obscure. In the first place, Kyle writes elegant and aching music that is both picturesque and personal; his melodies effortlessly communicate human emotions like fear, joy, and loneliness, but they can describe places or provide narratives, too. I think it’s possible that some of Kyle’s music is pleasing simply because it’s the musical representation of a pleasing place or memory. Either way, Kyle uses simple ingredients to create attractive, and sometimes complex, music, which brings me to the obscure qualities. They have less to do with the sound of the music itself and more to do with the effort put into making it. Following the lead of several great composers, Kyle strives to produce a wide range of sounds and colors using a minimum of elements, and there is something pleasing about that in and of itself. It is a great challenge to say more with less, and hearing someone face that challenge is akin to watching an athlete accomplish a difficult feat. Ways of Meaning is also just over 40 minutes long, so it features both a strict economy of instrumentation and time. Dunn knows that simplicity has its own beauty, and he has suffused his latest album with it in every way possible.
That’s something Kyle has always done with his music, though. What makes Ways different is the secret Kyle has smuggled inside it. That secret first comes to light on “Movement for the Completely Fucked,” a song whose title would be comical if it weren’t so insidious. Like the other five songs on this album, it’s both calm and measured, but unlike the other five, its title is completely incongruous. I’d chalk that fact up to impertinence, except “Movement” is ambiguous to the point of being ice cold, like a dead stare from across the poker table. The music is undeniably attractive, but with this added intrigue, it acquires the brutality Dunn mentioned in his interview. It ceases to be pretty in a simple way, and it loses some of its obscure allure at the same time. But, because it’s still composed of the same elements as the other songs, it refuses any deeper inquiry. There are no lyrics, no honest statements, and no guideposts. After getting to this point, all I hear is the sound of Kyle being erased from his music. By stripping his instrumentation down and refusing to utilize conventional forms, Kyle both simplifies his music and removes himself from it. What’s left is uncertain and even misleading.
So, when Kyle says he is drawn to the truthfulness of his favorite music, I have to wonder what he has in mind and whether he intends to infuse his own music with that same truthfulness. As I listen to Ways, I think the answer must have something to do with the play between simplicity and meaning, a natural topic for someone attracted to minimalism. It’s tempting to think that, as music becomes simpler, so too must its content, but Kyle challenges that notion with the smallest of twists. Were the music just a shade happier or a tad darker, it would be easy to dismiss this discrepancy, or to miss it altogether. Of course, were “Movement for the Completely Fucked” named otherwise, there would be no reason to suspect anything at all. In any case, Kyle underlines the complexity of the idea of “meaning” by demonstrating its volatility in even a spartan musical environment. There’s nothing surprising about that conclusion, but he expresses it in such a way that it becomes evidently frightening, honest, and beautiful. Music isn’t terribly different from language, and if sound is so ambiguous, then think how much more difficult language must be, whether we realize it or not.
Of course, I haven’t read that Kyle has said anything about that. Maybe the truth is that minimalism isn’t as minimal as we might think, or that music can be beautiful whether it means anything or not.