After last year’s Ways of Meaning, I have a hard time hearing Kyle Bobby Dunn the way I once did. There was something dark and deceiving about that record, something that didn’t show up in the music so much as it did in the subtext, but which changed the way the music felt nonetheless. On his latest album, a two disc set with over two hours of new music, Kyle continues to complicate his message. His ascetic approach is intact and as beautiful as ever, but the same enigma that haunted his last album is all over this record, too, and it’s even more noticeable.
Dunn’s talent for the economical use of harmony and color is so developed that it can be difficult to see past. Abrasive, ugly, or unusual sounds always inspire audiences to ask questions, but pretty ones get an easy pass, as if their prettiness were sufficient reason to use them. Whether by design or accident, Kyle’s music takes advantage of that fact, or suffers from it, depending on your point of view.
Since I first started listening three years ago, his music has become more layered, but not because he has added more instruments or somehow changed his approach. Rather, the added dimensions are the result of his persistent use of the same materials he has always used, plus some help from contextual details like album and song titles. He has become more familiar with the pitches and colors his music employs, and also more familiar with the moods they evoke, so his ability to manipulate those ingredients has increased substantially. As a result, his music has also become more asymmetrical and severe. On a song like “Ending of All Odds,” I hear pretty tones and bittersweet harmonies, but the overall effect is more resigned and ghostly. “Parkland” is made up of mostly warm and enormous tones that stretch on for minutes at a time, but it feels impersonal in places and cold in others. Kyle’s music may be pretty, but I don’t think his pretty music always results from equally pretty inspiration. In the bright, swollen drones he produces, all kinds of nooks and crannies exist, and they are populated by moments of dissonance, shadow, and trepidation. Get too caught up in how attractive the music sounds, or in how relaxing it is, and those moments can go by unnoticed. Once these moments are heard, they are impossible to overlook, and they add a great deal of complexity to his work.
The big, spacious tones that Kyle is best-known for make that kind of subtlety possible in the first place. On this record, they also mimic some of the subject matter with which Kyle is working. Of the 15 songs on Bring Me the Head, at least five are references to locations around Alberta, Canada, and I think one of them (“Complétia Terrace”) was recorded in Banff National Park. His decision to name his songs for these places, along with the length of the album, puts his use of scale, space, and time in the spotlight, rather than the pitches he selects. It is more natural, after all, to describe places in terms of their space and scale rather than by means of pitch.
This separation of space, time, and pitch in his music might also explain why his songs can sound one way, but feel almost diametrically opposite. If he is composing in terms of space first and pitches second, then it is easy to imagine each element developing independently of the other. However he does it, when Kyle puts all his elements together, the result is some of the most beautiful and ambiguous music I have heard this year, and easily one of the best albums of its kind.