From its inception, house music has inhabited a liminal space between politics and emotion. Not that the two can be discretely separated — which is precisely what house is saying.
House was black, queer music. On Long Trax 2, though, it’s not (at least not overtly) sexual preference that’s in question, but race. House took gospel ideas of freedom and applied them to sexuality — Long Trax 2 now returns to those initial freedoms, refracted through the politicized lens of samples by prominent African American activists.
Creating spaces where people can feel freedom in societies that define their identity as abject is itself a political act. As is expressing desire, even indirectly, of which society disapproves. At the same time, paradoxically, a consumer society is all about enacting and repetitively fulfilling desire. House’s solid beats, without buildup or release, represent both that repetition and the melancholy of the fact that it will never be entirely fulfilled — as is also true for our most utopian ambitions. Tears on the dancefloor are tears of both joy and sorrow. Desire is ambiguous and expressed obliquely.
This, therefore, is a music that has traditionally disavowed the overtly political in its content, but in fact, it’s haunted house — haunted by Angela Davis’s “struggles, the difficulties” that are named on the track of that title.
Long’s house is particularly haunted. The voices of black figures (Davis, Barack Obama, Richard Pryor), which echo over its four-to-the-floor beats and sorrowful synth pads, are very much of our moment, a clear critique. Yet they also hark back to the literal past, the moment in which these words were uttered and were captured (the hauntedness of recordings themselves) — and to previous visions of social perfection, of equality, which have not come to pass. As Long puts it: “The speeches I use are obviously from the more distant past, and all along I’ve been most interested how these themes tie in with my own idea of what house music is, but also as a reminder of our societal failures and what still needs to be fixed.”
And there’s a further type of ambiguity at play. “Nothing’s Changed” samples Obama: “Should we pretend that we’ve got a colorblind society? … Nothing’s changed … and I’m a very angry man!” Is this an ironic commentary on the disappointment that Obama’s actions in presidency represented for so many? Does that betrayal, of his former self and of the people, add a further sting to dancefloor sorrow?
Either way, the exquisiteness and transcendence of Long’s music is disrupted by his choice of samples, which are bound in time (as against that transcendence), which remind one of conflict and of disrupted dreams of “progress.” But the fact that this is disruption demonstrates that it’s only privilege that allows anyone to forget these social conditions even momentarily. These ruptures reflect, overtly, the role that house has always had as an alternative way to do politics, breaking the smooth surface and the traditions of the sound to remind us of what, in its fundamental nature, this music has been and may be still.
In holding these contradictions, Long Trax 2 is somehow eerie, yet also peaceful — thematically and sonically. The six tracks unfold entirely at their own pace over the course of an hour. And they absolutely need that space to breathe, to unfold — just as Long’s ambient compositions as Celer do. Thus, the album has a filmic quality (reflected in Long’s twitter feed, which references movies like Paper Moon, Le Samouraï, and The Defiant Ones).
With antecedents in Herbert’s Around the House or Luomo’s Vocalcity, Long Trax 2 is not a huge leap forward from 2016’s Long Trax (except inasmuch as the absence of the DJ Sprinkles overdubs that accompanied that release), but it doesn’t need to be. The “unoriginality” of house is precisely what is troubled here: “I’m not interested in trying to be cutting edge — always updating or latching to what other currently active artists are doing to be part of a group” (Long). Musically, it’s deeply simple, unaffected, with a crystalline flawlessness in being so. Synth pads come in a moment after you expect them to and hold a fraction longer than seems right — a wabi-sabi that creates perfection. Long resides in Japan, and there’s a kind of Zen-like quality of acceptance and peacefulness here within which lies both conflict and horror, as well as beauty — the “ten thousand things” at play.
Is this spiritual quality aimed at overcoming the human condition or digging deeper into it? Simon Reynolds comments on the way deep house mixes the posthuman with soul: on the one hand, machinic repetition; on the other, the lushness of jazz, the influences from gospel, the wailing diva. Long’s trax are emotionally at a remove from the soulful sirens who are sometimes associated with deep house — that tension between joyful celebration and a modern-day blues, between major and minor keys.
This mirrors the space he creates between isolation and connection. While the music conveys a deep sense of loneliness (though also a certain satisfaction at this aloneness), a hermetic world, the political voices also point us back to the inevitability of interconnection, for better or worse, and of community. Despite Japan’s thriving house scene, it’s not the music’s home, and Long states: “I don’t feel connected in almost any way to a community of house music or electronic music.” There’s an alienness to the tones here, to the shimmering synth pads, which in light of the samples could be called a minimalist Afrofuturism.
Except that this can’t be Afrofuturism. Long is a white man in Japan using black voices and black (/queer) music to comment on race inequality. He grew up in Mississippi, and he explicitly notesthat “We Tend To Forget” is based on a racist incident he witnessed as a child, where an African-American child was treated differently than himself. To be sure, he’s not addressing these issues with the ineptness of, say, tUnE-yArDs. At the same time, this friction can’t be ignored, and it surfaces in interviews in which he redefines the “political” into the realm of the social and cultural, commenting on polarization in a way that may seem to lend a false equivalence to these “sides.”
The listener — as an individual and as part of the web of community, identity, belief — must resolve these questions. But that listener, in the moment and as that moment continually recedes into the past, will do so in the most gorgeous of sonic company.