Back Pages #8: Through the Hill

Andy Partridge and Harold BuddThrough the Hill (Gyroscope/All Saints, 1994)

The Back Pages series was supposed to track music that had a particular story for me, mostly from the timeframe when I began earnestly delving into creative music. I don’t have much of a story for this one. But after the recent passing of Harold Budd, I started thinking about Through the Hill for the first time in years, and I realized this album taught me fundamental things about my passion for discovering and collecting music.

The album follows Budd’s aesthetic of lingering beauty, maybe with brighter melody and faster tempos. It’s a true collaboration, with Budd and Partridge (XTC guitarist whose fantastic pop songwriting includes some creative outer-ring stuff) sharing composing duties. The music is keyboard-based, with acoustic or electric guitars popping up here and there. Partridge adds occasional wordless vocals. On three tracks, Budd recites short poetry pieces written by Partridge.

What I loved, though, was the organization and the packaging. If you remember my geeking out about the structure and symmetry of Kris Davis’ Duopoly album, I had the same kind of reaction to Through the Hill.

The album’s 16 pieces are organized into three units: Geography, Structures, and Artifacts — with four “Hand” pieces acting as the joints between them, like Robert Wilson’s Knee Plays. Each song title is a vaguely mystical reference to an imagined place, building, or object.

Through the Hill, back cover.

The groupings resemble the chapters in Italo Calvino’s Imaginary Cities (which itself was apparently influenced by Georges Perec and the Oulipo writing/mathematics social collective, and here I’m reaching my limit of literary knowledge).

Inside the CD case, each of the three units gets a fold-out card, with each piece represented by an image from J.G. Heck’s The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration. Taken from antiquity, the pictures add to the abstract, mystical “story” the album seems to outline, and the general lack of human figures suggests empty spaces suitable for this quiet, blanketing music.

“Through the Hill” [from “Geography”]

I studied this album, in the sense that I listened by imagining that these “chapters” had meaning, with themes revealed in the music itself. I didn’t really expect to find anything; even the Hand pieces don’t seem to have a common thread. But it made the music into a journey, and it drew the physical album’s organization and presentation into the listening experience.

“The Place of Odd Glances” [from “Structures”]

And I just savored those titles. “Missing Pieces to the Game of Salt and Onyx” is not my favorite track musically — it’s based on a slow acoustic guitar riff that’s appropriately quirky but not enough to grab me — but… that title!

The CD wasn’t available for long, and therein lies my story. My first reaction at seeing it in the store, being familiar with both Partridge and Budd, was, “Well, I wonder what that even is.” Seeing it on multiple trips to the store spurred another thought: “When that thing’s gone, you might never hear of it again.”

“Bronze Coins Showing Genitals” [from “Artifacts,” featuring Budd’s voice]

I took a chance. Through the Hill would not make my Top 10 list musically, but it’s one of the prized gems in my collection. It was the beginning of the lesson that vinyl records and even CDs are physical souvenirs, collectables, just like baseball cards other trinkets. Much as I’m not proud of caring about physical objects, I have to admit that owning albums makes me happy. I certainly can’t afford to grab up every souvenir I come across — but that’s part of the fun: being discriminating, making choices, taking the occasional leap of faith. My mom loves to duck into antique stores, and it frustrated us as kinds, especially since she never seemed to buy anything. Now I can relate.

What’s changed for me since the ’80s and ’90s is that I now know the emotion that comes from owning something for a long time. My high school and college-era records are filled with trapped memories — not just the music, but also the flow of everything else happening in my life at the time. There are some records that I love and will never play until some major life event puts me in need of healing or reminiscing. Because just as playing vinyl wears down the grooves, opening and admiring and hearing those records will wear down those memories and mix them with the present. What matters isn’t the permanence of the object, but the threads of history clinging to it.

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