Music has a way of accenting time and — at its best — of moving it forward. Time would pass anyway, of course, but the beat propels it, allows it to be experienced more fully. At least, this is what happens when Felix Walworth is behind a drum set. Standing with long hair loose, Walworth flails, hitting at things with a reckless restraint. To watch is to see the world in microcosm — body and song — come into being one moment at a time.
Walworth plays drums in Bellows, Eskimeaux, and Florist; but most special to me is Walworth’s own songwriting project, Told Slant. Told Slant is one of those bands whose songs change, if not save, peoples’ lives. Like Walworth’s drumming, Walworth’s songs are at once intricate and raw. Certain in their uncertainty, the songs delve into the turbulent and ever-shifting consciousness.
I first saw Told Slant play in the spring of 2013 at Bard College, where Walworth and I were both students. Walworth played with an almost mystical intensity — like a witch-healer insistent on purging the crowded basement room of its psychic pain. As the show progressed, questions, ones I had been avoiding, emerged. How should I live? And, how should I understand my life? Are those two questions in fact one?
I spent the better part of the following summer alone, listening to Told Slant’s self-released EP, Still Water, and by the fall, Walworth’s songs had invaded my brain. I’d look up and there they’d be — stuck like spit wads on the cafeteria ceiling — tightly rhymed lyrical phrases waiting to drop down and reveal themselves as sites of complexity, small balls made up of many masticated bits.
In June, Told Slant released a second full-length album, Going By, on indie record label Double Double Whammy. Going By is quieter than Still Water (which sounds like Modest Mouse’s early work) but is otherwise an extension of Walworth’s effort to understand the ways in which emotion shifts. In advance of the album, Walworth was profiled in Spin, and after its release Pitchfork reviewed the album. The New Yorker explained, “Walworth forges lovely, sparsely arranged music” and likened listening to Told Slant to “unearthing a diary that’s been stuffed under a mattress.”
The tone of these reviews is laudatory, but not one gets close to explaining what is — I think — so special about Told Slant. The reviewers say nothing of the way in which Walworth embodies the process of continual reinterpretation and so insists, in the midst of a culture full of militant conviction, that the world — landscapes, our sense of reality, bodies — exists in a constant state of flux. Told Slant’s performances, lyrics, and arrangements present a vision of the world in certainty is replaced with a perpetual process of making meaning.
As a fan, I have loved Told Slant without reserve — thinking earnestly and often about their music with a sense of great personal stake. I’ve sat with this music, walked around with it, cried with it — believed it to be a riddle whose solution would reveal much more than itself. I spent years convinced that some vital wisdom was embedded in Walworth’s music and wanted to pin it down, to hold onto it.
In May 2014, I got a line from a Told Slant song, “Lack,” tattooed on my right thigh. A friend of mine had asked Walworth (a friend of his) to write out the line — “where the sand slopes down” — for me months earlier; Walworth had found me after a Bellows’ show to give it to me and I had been carrying the piece of paper folded up in my wallet since. The line is from the song’s beginning, which imagines going out for a swim and, in doing so, invokes an emotional experience of the landscape:
I want to swim way out,
where the sand slopes down
where all I have to think about
are my muscles and
my arms and legs
and the blood and oxygen in them
The sand dips and feet cease to reach riverbed — arms and legs must remember how to keep the body afloat. In that moment, it is necessary to pay attention only to what is immediately present — breath, arms, air. Heard alone, these lines have seem to offer a way to move past anxiety, but, as the song continues, the scene is placed within a wider context and takes on new shades of meaning.
“I don’t want to be a boy/and you don’t want to be a girl,” Walworth sings, flinging away notions of gender imposed onto the body. (Walworth identifies as agender and uses the gender-neutral pronoun they.) To be in the space boy and girl, awareness must attune itself to what is immediately present: the body.
“It’s the lack that I still love,” they sing, “the space between the punch and the pain that comes.” There is a gap between sensation and the way that sensation comes to mean. A body doesn’t mean but does; the scenes and their emotional resonance both contribute to and are independent from a larger allegorical meaning. The line, I reasoned, needn’t mean one thing, but would — like the physical scene it invoked and the song it was a part of — continue to shift in its meaning even after being etched into flesh.
After Emily Dickinson died in 1886, her sister, Lavina, found a trove of poems — nearly 1,800 in total. Imagine Lavina rummaging around in her sister’s upstairs bedroom in the light of late afternoon and finding papers, covered in sharp little things — words and so many dashes. Here were poems Lavina hadn’t known existed, poems that virtually no one knew existed, but which soon became famous. Two centuries later, the meaning continues to flit through the poems, refusing to land. Told Slant takes its name from poem number 1263. It goes like this:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
The first line — “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” — serves as a sort of thesis for this poem, which embodies the notion that to communicate the essence of things, unreachable as they are, is a continuous and troubled process. Dickinson mixes metaphors, for any single articulation will limit, transform, tramp down the realness of what it is trying to convey.
Walworth takes Dickinson’s line out of the imperative and puts it into the past tense: Told Slant. Walworth’s songs are attempts to express and account for both the experience of discrete, fleeting, moments, and the difficulty of trying to understand and communicate the essence of these moments. Walworth’s songs circle around small moments of clarity without ever resting in them. On “Lack,” Walworth sings about moments when the world is experienced directly, without the intermediate force of language. Once an experience is understood, once sensation is given meaning, the quiet, calm precision of the present disappears; the distance between what something is and what it means seems to collapse.
On “Sweater” — a studio version is on Going By but Walworth has been performing the song for years — Walworth sings, “you got a new sweater,” and then, with voice cracking, “I didn’t know until I saw it in a picture.” Learning about the sweater through a photograph is heartbreaking, for it makes visible the new distance between the former lovers. The sweater, though, is simply evidence of this sadness. Walworth can’t believe that this person is, in so many small ways, changing. “I don’t understand why you’re living there, and I don’t understand your,” Walworth’s voice cracks again, “sweater.” The cracking reveals the emotion unleashed by the picture and allows for meaning to oscillate between the specific sadness of seeing the picture and the larger sadness of the break up. The emotion is not either/or but both/and.
Each time Walworth performs, the songs — and the questions they pose — are born anew. In an interview that Walworth did with Grey Estates earlier this year, they explained their hyper-emotive lyrics “have meanings that shift and change over time.” From show to show, the way Walworth performs changes — sometimes sad songs become angry, become anthems of willful self-confidence. The songs are “about specific people and places, but in different contexts I can read them and perform them in service of other things. The songs don’t exist in a static or congealed sense just because they’re finished.”
In July, I took a long subway ride to visit Walworth — who is now a friend — in their south Brooklyn neighborhood. In a coffee shop, with windows up to the ceiling and a tiled floor, we talked about how the neighborhood’s hilly streets sometimes align in such a way to reveal views — of water and of bridges — that make the area feel, just a bit, like San Francisco.
As we sat there, Walworth told me that on certain blocks they’re able to forget that they’re in New York at all. “It’s like when you’re laying in the grass,” Walworth explained, “and all you can see is sky and that makes it easier to imagine,” to believe that you are, “anywhere else where there is also grass and sky.” By paying intense attention to the particular elements of the landscape, the landscape at hand can be interpreted as another.
Just as the Dickinson poem can be seen from many angles, one’s neighborhood, relationships, and feelings can be understood, and through time are understood, in so many different ways that they become nearly incomprehensible. Walworth’s music is affecting because it acknowledges that to move through the world is to be changed by it.
The refrain of “High Dirge” directly addresses the way meaning shifts directly. “It’s a long life, I can’t get it right,” Walworth sings. But exactly what Walworth can’t get right is never precisely stated. Is Walworth unsatisfied with the way they are living or with their attempts to communicate the way they are living? The answer is, I think, both. The refrain allows for both meanings to be present and for the song to be understood in more than one way. By opening song up to multiple interpretations, Walworth manages to gesture towards a deeper truth: we can’t say, with any certainty, what the fact of the matter is.