Music algorithms push discovery. Open up an algorithmic playlist and you’ll hear a new song every three to five minutes, a few from artists you know and several you don’t. The point is not to dwell but to flow, moving from peak to peak. It’s possible to listen to these songs again, but why would you? There are already five more playlists to go through, and then there will be five more the next day, and the day after that.
The algorithms get a lot right, of course. The moments they highlight are often delightful, especially now that new musicians know what they have to do to get a spot, even if it includes the most old-fashioned style of influencing. It’s a game being played by companies like Spotify and the music industry. But Katie Alice Greer’s new album, Barbarism, is certainly not an album that plays these games.
The album opens with the jarring “FITS/My Love Can’t Be,” which starts with all sorts of drumming noises firing at a rapid pace. “There’s been a lot of talk about what happens when we sleep,” she says, before expanding on the “we” and the context in which we’re sleeping: “on the job like the night watch in a heist movie.” Suddenly, the listener is in on the crime. “We let them in, didn’t we?”
From there, the song starts talking about the widespread surveillance industry against cacophonous walls of sound. It’s a spectator sport, with more popcorn when you’re bored, but it doesn’t see everything. It doesn’t see what’s inside the souls of the people in the street, for example. “I know they’re just like me / Searching for the universe in strange words a stranger speaks.” And then, the “we” turns into you. “I need to wait in the wings, you said / But tell me, aren’t we / The ones that we were waiting for us to be?”
There’s a lot going on in “FITS/My Love Can’t Be,” from the mouthful of a title to the outpouring of ideas. Greer moves fast and expects the listener to keep up. And as soon as you’ve gotten there, things are changing all over again.
Greer wrote, performed, produced, and mixed the entire album herself, and the albums effuses a DIY spirit which recalls the alt-rockers of the early ‘90s like Guided by Voices, especially on tracks like “Fake Nostalgia,” which uses The Twilight Zone to attack the concept in the title and the dreamy and surreal “Dreamt I Talk to Horses.”
Greer first captured the attention of music tastemakers as the dynamic lead singer of the band Priests, where she declared that “Barack Obama killed something in me, and I’m gonna get him for it!” The politics of her new work is more abstract but just as vibrant.
Greer has called Barbarism an “entire world,” and if it is, then it’s one that is constantly shifting. Nothing is certain in Barbarism, least of all what sounds are coming next—it could be a warm chorus or the dread of a ticking clock that punctuates “No Man.”
It’s a collection of songs worth sitting with for multiple listens. Barbarism is not built for an algorithm. It’s an album built by a human being.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.