Tim Parkinson’s Pleasure Island (Slip): Junky Little Epiphanies

To describe what Tim Parkinson‘s Pleasure Island sounds like would be doubly unwise: it would spoil the discoveries you’re likely to make as you listen, and the description itself would be wholly uninformative about the experience of listening. The press materials specify “ultra-minimal aesthetics, dead-beat drums, junk electronics, and mechanised (sic) mantras”—all of which are indeed in ample supply—but the juxtapositions and interactions among these elements, however opaque, are what make Pleasure Island compelling.

Pleasure Island (Slip) really does feel like an island, but not just any island: a private island, a constrained, designed space whose traversal by the listener is characterized by the introduction and rearrangement of a finite set of audible assets, a modest-sized sprite sheet with a limited, painstakingly selected palette. Its synths and drum machines stamp the judicious but taboo-blind chassis of UK experimentalism with a faint impression of krautrock; its vocals almost always come from a group, a crowd rather than an ensemble: a small party of people hastily recruited to do more or less the same thing at more or less the same time. (Of course, to say that would be to shortchange the performers—Dawn Bothwell, Francesca Fargion, Laurie Tompkins, Suze Whaites, and Parkinson himself—who conjure the record’s very particular vocalism perfectly.)

Tim Parkinson--Photo by Rick Pushinsky

Tim Parkinson–Photo by Rick Pushinsky

Your trip around this island will be marked by small but uncanny tableaux and striking contrasts. I know I said I wouldn’t divulge any specifics, but permit me two examples. The sudden appearance of birdsong at the end of “Human Words Machine Lesson,” seemingly an intrusion of the natural world, is compromised by its context: are they real or synthesized? Real, probably—but everything else on Pleasure Island seems so enervated that it is hard to believe a real bird would make an appearance. The synth stabs that punctuate a sample of light music in “Skip” several tracks later seem like a fly in the ointment, but is it a coincidence that its pitch is the sample’s first scale degree? No, as it turns out: a rhythmic fill at 2:10 makes a sudden and illuminating connection between one stratum of junk on this isle of misfit toys and another. If Haydn did it, we’d call it a joke; wiser now to look instead for a moral to Parkinson’s story.

At a time when the aesthetic of junk is well-established, Pleasure Island manages to be junkier and more worthwhile than most because it never tries to salvage anything. Familiar refrains come and go in whole or in part, sounds are repeated, and people speak without conviction. There’s no moment of apotheosis, no redemptive revelation of beauty: the achievement of Pleasure Island is that marvelous little epiphanies are to be found in an environment where just about everything is, so to speak, a bit crap. We’re in an environment in which just about everything is a bit crap, so for Parkinson to ponder that crap with us is a nontrivial job for a composer to undertake.

To fill one’s vocabulary with just the right musical nouns takes taste and savvy, but to deploy them with such sensitive verbs is a skill that has to be learned over many years. On Pleasure Island, Parkinson chooses his silly, ugly blocks carefully and builds something fascinating and delightful with them: that’s why they call it “composing.”