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Joseph Shabason - Anne Music Album Reviews

On his second solo album, the saxophonist and Destroyer collaborator grapples with intergenerational trauma by turning interviews with his mother into gorgeous and empathetic ambient music.

Though he’s only begun releasing music under his own name recently, Toronto saxophonist Joseph Shabason has already used his horn to flesh out two of the decade’s best experimental rock albums. He played a key role on the War on Drugs’ 2014 breakthrough Lost in the Dream, but his greatest impact can be heard three years earlier on Destroyer’s masterpiece Kaputt. Frontman Dan Bejar had largely completed his soft-rock opus before asking Shabason to improvise over the recordings, where his ghostly saxophone lines proved to be the perfect complement to Bejar’s alternately hedonistic and weary narrator, hanging over every story like a heavy cologne.

Shabason has history in ’80s-style synth pop with his project DIANA, but his work on Kaputt functioned more like a metropolitan take on Jon Hassell’s music, using foggy atmospheres to paint a cocaine-fueled cityscape that exists in the mind. That influence solidified on his 2015 debut, Aytche, a collection of synth-treated saxophones that hovered between jazz and ambient. With Anne, Shabason follows impulses hinted at on his debut and enlists several collaborators to help him craft an album superior in every way. The most important of those is right in the album’s title: Shabason’s mother, Anne, whose vocals, taken from a series of recorded interviews with her son, provide the album’s throughline.

This technique appeared on Aytche’s best track, “Westmeath,” in the form of a foggy recording of a man reflecting on his father’s eventual suicide after surviving the Holocaust. Shabason, whose grandparents were survivors as well, says that he partially concealed that speaker’s voice as a sign of respect. With Anne, he and his mother bravely reflect on intergenerational trauma in frank discussions where nothing is held back sonically or emotionally.

Anne’s recordings are as personal and specific as you might expect of a candid conversation with her son; every stammer and background noise adds a degree of intimacy to the hypnotic soundscapes Shabason builds around them. Though her diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease looms large in the album’s background story, the recordings focus primarily on her memories as a child and a parent. It’s captured powerfully on “Deep Dark Divide,” in which she admits, “You grew up with the feeling that you were worthy, you were worthy of that support. I don’t think I grew up with that feeling.” Shabason methodically builds up synth and saxophone lines until they blur into one, crafting a somber illustration of the “deep dark divide” she alludes to.

Shabason finds new ways to transform his horn throughout Anne, and, thanks to a subtle use of field recordings, instrumentals fit like natural pauses in the album’s conversation. The heartbreaking centerpiece “Forest Run” opens with a brief dialogue about the need to appear “perfect,” and the frustration in her voice is palpable. No wonder: Children expect perfection from parents, just as parents do from themselves, but that idea often crumbles before the inevitability of age and illness. Shabason’s instrumental response, built around a gorgeous synth progression, functions as wordlessly and powerfully as a tender hug.

Two other crucial collaborators appear near the end of Anne. Gigi Masin, whose ambient classic Wind was an important influence on Aytche, melts into “November” with a gorgeous synth bed for Shabason’s steadily rising sax. And finally there’s Bejar on a bonus track, “I Don’t Want to Be Your Love” (to be released digitally in late January), which anyplace else might threaten to steal the show, but here functions perfectly as a coda. Rather than a lost chapter from Kaputt, the song sounds like an evolution of it, or more accurately an evaporation, with Shabason’s sax turned into an glimmering echo. Simply expanding that one-of-a-kind sound is enough of an achievement, but Anne is more than that. It’s the sound of Shabason finding his voice, primarily by listening to another. The generational chasm between parents and children can feel deep and dark, but Anne, both the album and the person, builds a bridge with light and tremendous empathy.

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