The final installment in a trilogy of albums by Chicago experimentalist Whitney Johnson gets its motifs from nature and its emotional immediacy from the musician’s recent medical emergency.
Whitney Johnson’s music shoots straight for the subconscious. Recording as Matchess, she makes songs out of dense atmospheres, ghostly singing, and submerged beats that sound like the pulse inside your head. Her work seems designed to slip past your frontal lobes, massaging and stimulating your brain’s murkiest regions. “I try to push the abstract, the hidden aspects of the surface meaning,” she once explained, “where you are seeking one thing and another comes out—something unexpected.”
If you know Matchess’ discography, her latest release won’t strike you as too unexpected. Sacracorpa’s six tracks extend the thread of deep, affecting ambience that has run through Johnson’s work from the start—a dimension of her music that she has expanded and improved with each release. And the album is the final part of a trilogy that includes 2013’s Seraphastra and 2015’s Somnaphoria. Each installment builds on sounds and ideas that came before it, and Sacracorpa ties those strands together to form Johnson’s most cohesive statement.
Though it has always had a strong emotional core, Matchess’ music possesses a new immediacy on Sacracorpa. Perhaps that’s because the album grew out of Johnson’s own experiences: A recent emergency, which she has described as “a medical condition from birth [that] came back,” rekindled her appreciation for life and intensified her commitment to finishing her trilogy. Using voice, viola, organ, drum machine, and field recordings, she recorded in her home city of Chicago, but also in a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania and an Earthship in northern New Mexico. The results sometimes spotlight nature—you can hear water ripple and dogs bark—making the music feel personal and unmediated, akin to a sonic diary. Johnson freely transforms feelings into music, and vice versa.
Though she still favors intricate, multi-layered sonic constructions, Johnson is unafraid to lead with her emotions. Sacracorpa can be as sweeping and effusive as the most melodramatic new age compositions: On “Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes,” multi-tracked vocals and soaring strings radiate positivity, anchored by an insistent drum pulse. A clicking rhythm drives “Ossify Them,” whose organ waves evoke the chill of outer space and the warmth of pleasant dreams. This commingling of tones, beats, and voice ties together every track on the album, as though the songs were all variations on a theme. But each one goes deeper than the last, too; when Johnson knits viola and singing at the end of closer “Of Freedom,” her music seems to enter a fourth dimension.
That expansion on Sacracorpa is partially a product of Johnson’s everyday environment. Ensconced in the Chicago underground, she’s played in psych band Verma and avant-folk outfit Circuit Des Yeux. Her sonic vibe feels particularly close to that of her frequent tourmate, Natalie Chami of TALSounds, whose music uses similarly expressive vocals and layered tones to evoke emotions. But even though Johnson’s cohort informs her sound, her singularly introspective approach to songwriting has always suggested that Matchess is a self-contained project more than a cog in the wheels of a scene. In completing this thoughtful trilogy, she proves it.