There’s a concept called jamais vu—the opposite of déjà vu—that occurs when the familiar is rendered unfamiliar; it’s the feeling when, for instance, a room you know well suddenly seems strange (has that sofa always been that color?), or if you miss a turn on a route you’ve driven a thousand times, or a family member seems, for one moment, like a complete stranger. On debut album Whiplash, New York-based ambient composer and sound artist Asha Sheshadri creates pieces that embody this feeling.
Whiplash’s liner notes state that the tracks were “arranged & recorded… in bedrooms, living rooms, libraries, bars, airplanes, backyards and parks across North America,” but although this might suggest familiarity or even domesticity, the sonic flotsam and jetsam (including white noise, overlapping conversations, rustling, nondescript electronic beeping) is paired with enigmatic spoken word parts, both becoming headier and stranger by their proximity to one another. If you’ve ever been moved by a strange exhibition in an art gallery, but you’re quite not sure why, then this album is for you.
Listening to Whiplash, we never quite get an answer. Sheshadri seems to delight in creating pieces that are somehow just out of reach. Is that the sound of a church bell tolling beneath layers of electronic processing on “I Know, You’re Cold”? What are those chewed-up textures on “Stimulus Progression” that seem forever crumpling in on themselves? The spoken word samples on “Irreplaceable” are cut off by blasts of mechanical whirring before they can get to any real meaning: “my current art practice relies primarily on the plundering and interpretation of th— in order to represent—.”
In the liner notes, Sheshadri also explains that Whiplash evokes “a refracted ambivalence towards what was once real, the endless cycle of reckoning with wherever ‘home’ has taken place.” The church bells on “I Know You’re Cold” were “once real” but are now saturated with a heavy flanging effect and overlaid with the sound of running water, foregrounding a free-flowing narrative. The piano—an instrument often associated with domestic, homey spaces—on “Whiplash,” “Shipwreck,” “Stimulus Progression,” and “Looting Index” is distressed and detuned until it sounds ghostly and fragile. The specificity of the lyrics—“flying over middle America on a plane seat without a retractable tray” on “A Holding Pattern,” or “the North Country Fair Mall at the particular time of day when it feels like a ghost mall inside and it’s sweltering outside” on album highlight “Some Places to Find Quiet and Peace”—suggests how transitory the temporary homes of “bedrooms, living rooms, libraries” or plane seats, for all their immediate realness, really are.
It’s notable that the vocal samples, sourced from “video work, excerpts from writers…recovered and recycled voice/text memos,” used by Sheshadri often seem to be from supporting characters in a story rather than main ones (“Supporting Characters” is even a song title on Whiplash): someone reminds a friend of their personal growth, a woman memorializes her mother, a documentary-style voiceover explains part of a musician’s oeuvre. Many are reminiscent of short stories by Breece D’J Pancake or Miranda July, where one vital piece of information seems to hover, specter-like, over the narrative but is never explicitly mentioned. It’s in these spaces between meaning, though, that this strange and lovely album calls home. Would you prefer it explained?