By Gabe Sherman
Vergangenheitsbewältigung only runs 24 minutes: it is a compact, thought-provoking, and rewarding sensory experience.
In 2019, Jasper Marsalis, a visual artist who also creates and performs music as Slauson Malone, released A Quiet Farwell 2016-2018 (Crater Speak). It was a turbulent, genreless album, informed by “the emotions caused by the conditions of the Anthropocene e.g. Global [White] Supremacy, Global Warming, Post-Colonialism/Post-Blackness, Black Death, the spectacle of Black Suffering.” Its songs were brief, angular, and sample-heavy — a sort of tightly controlled chaos — the sonic brevity and instability reflecting Marsalis’s personal journey to make sense of the complex ideas and theories of identity, history, and Black spectacle argued by thinkers such as Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten.
Marsalis’s new album, released in September, is titled Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Crater Speak). The German word means “coping with the past.” More specifically, it refers to the painful process of coming to terms with negative or traumatic events in a nation’s history. In an America where white people cling stubbornly to Confederate flags and statues and triumphant memories of Christopher Columbus, serious reconciliation — Vergangenheitsbewältigung — has been slow. Marsalis has embraced an unconventional and philosophical approach to this state of denial; he has decided that we need to do away with our traditional conceptions of history. “I try to believe that the past isn’t real and we have to make up the past to feel stable in our existence…like we can make history whatever we want it to be, but because we live in America, it has to be written in a way so that everything today makes sense,” he argued in an expansive interview following A Quiet Farwell’s release.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung exists in direct conversation with A Quiet Farwell, returning to and expanding on the previous album’s motifs. The arrangements for the new album were developed on tour and in live shows after AQF came out. Song titles on both records end parenthetically, referring to Malone’s companion book of inspirations, titled Crater Speak, and, occasionally, to other songs he’s composed.
But the two albums have clear differences. A Quiet Farwell was a challenging listen: noisy, cryptic, and fleeting. On Vergangenheitsbewältigung, Marsalis embraces more overtly musical forms, pushing forward developed ideas, melodic vocals, and poetic lyricism. The new album is more acoustic (many of the songs were composed on a vintage Martin guitar Marsalis had recently acquired) and uncluttered: instruments reverberate and lyrics are given space to resonate. Marsalis uses this new openness to manipulate occasional glitchy digital effects and noises, to emphasize the contrasts. Most of the arrangements are somewhat skeletal, but Marsalis remains capable of dynamism, at times bringing in moments of spine-tingling harmony. His mic etiquette is also notable: the intimately recorded vocals — you can often hear his breathing — demand your attention. Like its predecessor, this is not music you’d put on at a party. Vergangenheitsbewältigung requires that you think about what you are hearing.
AQF and Vergangenheitsbewältigung are thematically consistent, but each approaches those themes in a distinct way. The records testify to Marsalis’s expansive talents: he’s an innovative and bold producer as well as a student of music and history. He’s also an adept songwriter, instrumentalist, and lyricist. One of the treats on Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the strength of Marsalis’s lyrics: “Darkness my face/Body of clay/Mountains like shoulders/Rivers like veins/Sisyphus boulder/High when I’m stoned/Low when I’m sober/As I get older/I try and resist/But it persist/Absurd as it is/Hand in a fist in the sky/False sense of pride/In my skin/In my flesh/In my bones,” he sings on “The Message 3: Blood.”
The theories that pervade Marsalis’s music are complex and heady. They include Afro-pessimism, which positions Blackness as a sort of revealing nothingness. Recognizing Blackness triggers a revelation: that the structures and categorizations of our world make no sense. Given this line of thinking, Maralis is critical of what he considers to be escapist ideologies, such as Afro-futurism. A Quiet Farwell contains the song “The Flying Africans board mothership Zong! to colonize the new nubian planet called X ‘The World laughs as it turns another degree, hotter.’” The tune is a critique of the music and persona of Sun Ra. It co-opts the melody of “Space Is the Place” and reimagines the song’s lyrics: instead of “space is the place,” he sings “ain’t no space.” In an interview last year, Marsalis also took issue with the value of nostalgia: “I feel like if nostalgia was a house, trauma would be right next to it. Like, if you’re in the nostalgia room, you hear all the screams from the trauma room next door.” Philosophical and psychological concepts like these can’t be easily explained or distilled on an album and that’s not what Marsalis is trying to do. He rejects accepted, oversimplified conceptions of what it means to be Black. He’s interested in exploration, not answers, and he leans hard into ambiguity and gray areas.
On Vergangenheitsbewältigung, Marsalis questions the fidelity of the past, interrogating America’s self-serving illusions. One of the ways he engages with these ideas is through repetition. The first track, “Simile #7,” featuring Jai, is woozy, cold, and defeated, with Jai reciting a few elemental phrases as if they were mantras: “I feel crazy/I feel sleepy…I need some help…No more drama/no more trauma.” As the album carries on, Malone continually asks “Are you scared?” At other times, replication becomes a means to confront the past. On the aforementioned “The Message 3: Blood” he chants “No matter how hard you try, you can’t stop me now,” directly recalling “The Message 1” and “The Message 2” from A Quiet Farwell. But these lyrics are drawn from The Temptations tune “Message from a Black Man.” The track’s drama lies in how Marsalis keeps the original melody semi-intact, but ends up flipping the mood and political meaning of the song on its head. He later sings, “No matter how hard you try/Nothing seemed to work/World still turn/And I tried and I tried and/But my World still burn.”
Not every artist thinks as seriously as Marsalis does about what their music has to say. Slauson Malone uses music as a tool to probe and process the past — and to explore how history shapes the present. Vergangenheitsbewältigung only runs 24 minutes: it is a compact, thought-provoking, and rewarding sensory experience. But it also issues challenges to listeners: to tease out connections with A Quiet Farwell, to learn about the thinkers who influenced that project, and to accept that the arts can be a means to engage more critically with our world.
Gabriel Sherman is a student and writer from Brookline, MA, currently studying history at Pitzer College.