Album Review: The Delta Mirror – Machines That Listen

[Lefse; 2010]

I’ve been fortunate enough to have not have had many trips to the hospital in my life. My most memorable trip there was when I was a young boy of about seven years old. It was a strange experience from what I can remember which, unfortunately for this review isn’t a great deal. I recall falling asleep during the early evening in my hugely oversized bed with plain covers and uninviting grey painted steel frame that kept me at what seemed like a great height from the floor. I awoke at what must have been about nine or ten later that night. While I was resting the nurses had attached various electrodes to my body and had hooked me up to machines that occasionally beeped quietly. Upon realising this had all happened to me I became worried and distressed but my mother who was by my side, reassured me everything was alright. She stayed with me through the night in what looked like a terribly uncomfortable green vinyl chair. I fell back to sleep soon after, waking occasionally to still unfamiliar surroundings. Each time it was deadly quiet. The street lights protruded the gaping darkness around where only the red power lights of machines existed.

And it’s funny that we never really think of the machines much in this environment. The title to The Delta Mirror’s debut album is an intriguing and thought provoking one – Machines That Listen. Often those who have lived in a house for decades will muse on how the walls could tell stories of what they have seen but what about the machines that now more commonly surround us? Of all the machines we could pick, those that are used in hospitals are likely to have many great and distressing stories to share. All the lives they save and all the lives they see slip away from them, unable to artificially extend someone’s time beyond its natural end.

A little bit of perspective is needed before I continue further. Machines That Listen is a concept album from The Delta Mirror that tells nine different stories, each from a different room in a hospital. You might not pick on up on this exact concept from listening without any prior knowledge of the record but you’ll definitely pick on the medicinal themes and the overall presence of the hospital itself whether through the lyrics or by looking at song titles such as “A Room For Waiting” or “He Was Worse Than The Needle He Gave You.”

But the album title isn’t suggesting that the machines have stories to tell but rather that they are just listening. There is a sinister tone in that but eavesdropping is an intrusive activity, especially when we are at our most confused, desperate and scared. And that’s not just the patients. It can be interesting to see how distressed relatives, partners and friends will act when put into the hospital environment, especially when the situation is alarming and inevitable. On “And The Radio Played On” we hear of an elderly couple sharing their last moments together. The wife frantically searches through radio stations, trying to find a song to heighten the moment. She aims only for the best, so the moment can be as picturesque as possible despite the pending grief (“She flips through the stations knowing that wherever she lands/ will forever be the song that returns her to this moment”) while the dying husband brings reality into the picture (“Anything will do but we’re running out of time”).

As we’ve all seen from countless medical dramas the waiting can be excruciating and perhaps displays us at our worst despite our good intentions. On “A Room For Waiting” the music shifts from patient tones and steady piano to hazy and flickering electronics like the minutes bearing down on a potentially grieving set of parents. A line like “But how many we’re before me?” has an odd quality in the song as it’s not something you’d likely hear from a frantic person demanding information on a loved one’s condition. But put it as the words of the patient to the nurses and doctors or even the machines and it resonates differently. We’re each another life to better and you wonder how each worker in the hospital sees you (and perhaps how the machines would too if they thought on that level).

Elsewhere we hear of different ways different people dispose of the hours when nothing but waiting can be done. “Going To Town,” with it skittering backdrop and heightened sense of alarm, might seem obvious at first with its content and with lyrics like “she’s choking me down” it definitely sounds like someone needs to escape the confines of the hospital walls (however one could easily interpret the song title as a turn of phrase used for someone crashing). On thoughtful and somewhat harshly beautiful centrepiece “He Was Worse Than The Needle He Gave You” a character muses: “Got an empty house and that don’t bother me/ Got an empty bottle so the day won’t follow me/ I write empty songs and the words don’t bother me/ God damn/ I’ve got too much time on my hands.” Again you can change perspective here with every line from the patient lying in bed to the relative, stuck at home, trying to fill the time in whatever way they can.

You may well have picked up on the fact that I’m not really doing a sterling job of describing the music itself here and you’d be right to pull me up on that fact. But when I listen to this album I feel like I’m listening to the concept as opposed to the music itself. This might well sound odd but I enjoy this approach as they aren’t as many records around as fixated on an idea as I’d like. The criticism of the record comes from the fact that the layers are often build up feverishly. This in turn hides lead vocalist Craig Gordon’s vocals (an aptly monotonous voice that hints occasionally at brighter prospects, like the reassuring words that the doctors are making a dying patient as comfortable as possible) and lyrics which feel like the key to understanding these tracks fully. In turn however this invites careful and deep listening which is rewarded as there are plenty of hidden pleasures to pick out beneath the prepared piano and statically charged electronics.

The opening track here is also worth mentioning. It begins on a beat twitching alone in the shadows, reverberating off the walls ever so slightly before an autoharp springs into action. It brings with it a reassuring kind of light but as the track builds with guitar, bass and more electronics, it takes a turn away from the brightness, like the curtain being cast around your hospital bed, shutting out the daylight from the window opposite. It’s either odd or fitting then that track is titled “It Was Dark And I Welcome The Calm.” In what is often a frantic place of hurried decisions and distraught people, a moment’s reflection doesn’t come often. Looking back to those moments when I kept waking up during the night to my silent ward I wish I kept my eyes open that bit longer to take in and absorb my surroundings so they might be set in memory better. And I’m sure if I listened carefully enough I would have heard the machines tentatively listening in.