A lone dog barks and howls, kicking off Ruff Dog, the first of two albums released this month by the ever-restless artist Mica Levi. As an artist who has traversed different groups, solo iterations and gifted us with three stunning film soundtracks, Levi has been busy busied herself with finding the immediacy — or the beauty — in dissonance. Dissonance in noise, dissonance in tone, pitch, etc. Their approach is honed through theirher position as songwriter, producer and artist.
Ruff Dog and Blue Alibi came as a surprise; there were no announcements or signs that they were going to be released. The covers are pure white, with a messy handwritten tracklist scrawled onto small portions of the white void. Levi has always lent themself to expression through open-endedness.
It’s in the fuzz, the distortion, the distant synths, the unintelligibility of their vocals, the abrupt endings to their songs. Their work has morphed into that which is left. Simply left alone.
That liminality is what soundtracked a biopic following the late First Lady in “Jackie,” the single alien prostitute in “Under the Skin” and the volatile children left to their own devices in a desolate wilderness in “Monos.” Their music falls in line with other U.K. contemporaries like Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland. Lethargy is at play through a distinctive sonic palette they have made all their own.
On 2012’s Never (released by their band Micachu & the Shapes), they became known for using a vacuum cleaner, as well as other household appliances, as instruments, but that was when they were performing pop.
It’s 2021, and Levi is disjointed. They embrace the abstraction that before was the backdrop. This leaves their sound more exciting — rewarding in a different way. And that’s how the listener should approach this as well: in a different way.
“Kind of Strange” formally kicks off Ruff Dog with a precedent of woozy guitar-based songs. It’s dreary, and everything about it feels distant. You can’t really hear Levi’s voice, let alone their lyrics. Even the sound of a guitar is swallowed up in the droning.
This album is much more uniform than Blue Alibi, which holds more of the trademarks of their famous production. Songs on Blue Alibi echo Tirzah’s album Devotion, which was released in 2018 and produced by Levi. You hear the metallic panging synthesizer in a slightly different form here; it floats in and out mindlessly along with much of the other instrumentation. We’ve never seen Levi’s music as fragmented as it is on these two albums, or as lacking.
This is not to say that these albums aren’t good. What’s on display is the trajectory of an artist like Philip Guston, who’s figurative works morphed into Abstract Expressionism later on. Levi is an artist who is comfortable in their abilities, and is able to create something that is loose, challenging and at times frightening without being alienating.
Ruff Dog and Blue Alibi’s songs will echo in your ears without the aid of a catchy hook or verse chorus structure. Through their various projects, they’ve had immense freedom to look at music not merely as a song with experimental elements added in for decorative or aesthetic effect, but that very “experimentation” as the texture and substance of their music. If it weren’t for their work as a producer or film composer, we would’ve had two very different albums here.
Philip Guston’s abstract expressionist phase was not forever. He made a bold return to figuration in the 1960s, after making a very respectable name for himself in the former style. If Levi will also follow this trajectory remains to be seen, but their development as an artist has always remained intriguing, exciting and most importantly, unpredictable.
Daily Arts Writer Vivian Istomin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.