Land of Talk’s second album has ten tracks and is called Cloak and Cipher. Its songs are cloaked, are ciphered, but the title is not just a description; it is a challenge, a command, a promise Elizabeth Powell makes to herself. CLOAK! she says. CIPHER! This is how hidden things may be shown, how secrets can be sung out, in golds and bronzes, to the whole howling world.
It took ten seasons; one for each track.
Three winters ago, Elizabeth Powell had been transported to an unfamiliar land. This was not Montreal. She was alone in a room, singing sketches into a computer, furious and lost. She was trying to keep from unraveling. When Powell was a teenager, she used to crouch beside her four-track, whispering. Now she sat with a disconnected guitar and Garage Band’s automated beats, making small things: playing a single riff for two days, layering chords, murmuring melodies without lyrics. And then she stopped.
That spring, Land of Talk went on tour. Powell escaped the empty room. She extinguished a small flame. In Hamburg, at noon, she wrote “Hamburg, Noon”. But mostly Powell did not write: she issued a debut album and sang her heart out. She hid in the spotlight. Two autumns ago, Powell busted her ankle, had to use an ankle brace amazon, ruined her voice, played with Broken Social Scene. This was the season David Foster Wallace died; his death mattered. Powell made an EP. It was called Fun and Laughter. It borrowed the most angry of those old winter fragments, turning them into songs. The lyrics came last.
One summer ago, Powell returned to Montreal. On Parc avenue and rue St-Viateur, she clasped old friends. She jammed, she fell in love. Then Vic Chesnutt died, and Lhasa died, and Mark Linkous died, and Alex Chilton died. And Powell changed the melody to “Color Me Badd” so it’d have a little more of Big Star’s “Thirteen”.
Cloak and Cipher was recorded at Breakglass Studio in October 2009 and January of this year. Land of Talk worked with Eoin Olaoghaire on bass, Andrew Barr on drums, members of Stars, Wintersleep, Besnard Lakes, Arcade Fire, Esmerine and Patrick Watson. The album was produced by the inimitable Jace Lasek, with Lasek’s inimitable console – the same Neve board that Led Zep used on Physical Graffiti. There are rising horns and diving strings, but much of Cloak and Cipher Powell did alone: she reclaimed the solo, found the note, nailed it live off the floor.
Yet for all this, she hides. (She hides beautifully.) The lyrics to Cloak and Cipher were written late, very late, the last things to come. They are written with hindsight; they are written in code. Scraps of Cloak and Cipher came from newspaper headlines – stories of sugar-plant fires, the “rare soft goal”. Others are veiled confessions, sublimated into dream. Some were lifted from a novel Powell hated and began to carefully censor. She attacked with a thick marker, blacking out pages, demolishing whole paragraphs. Few words remained. In this way, Powell formed passages, found lyrics instead of creating them. “Finding is conscious,” she says. “You will the word to exist on your terms.” These became songs.
The music is obfuscated too. Cloak and Cipher’s songs fade out, fall apart, linger unresolved. Powell likes false starts, inverted chords, deceptive cadences. She likes Fugazi, Television, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Deerhunter, Suzanne Vega’s 99.9F˚ and Will Oldham’s Joya. All these things color the finished songs, songs rescued from that winter, sketches torn from that computer and remade. To hit the high notes, an expert told Powell, walk backwards. Powell had come through slaughter. She made it out and home.