It is impossible to talk about SVIIB, the most recent and likely final album from School of Seven Bells, without confronting a presence-absence dichotomy. The album exists as a document of the last collaboration between Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin Curtis before Curtis’ untimely death from lymphoma in 2013. Curtis is both everywhere and nowhere on SVIIB, and rarely has a collection of polished synthesizer music felt so personal.
The particulars of the band’s history are by this point well-documented: Four albums, Deheza and Curtis as friends, lovers, and songwriters. School of Seven Bells made — and the past tense seems appropriate now — synthesizer music with uncommon influences mixed in. The band’s aesthetic frequently cribbed from the East, borrowing sounds, fonts, and imagery from across the globe with the pleasant dissociation of a postmodern and postcolonial landscape. Dreamy and sweeping, the band’s early work seemed to emerge from an otherworldly place. On their final record together, they bridge the chasm between life and death. For SVIIB, Deheza confronted the stack of demos that she and Curtis recorded in 2012 before his death.
Though Curtis was unaware of his illness when recording, except for penultimate track “Confusion”, the compositions are shot through with Deheza’s self-consciousness about the end of Curtis’ life. There was the writing of the record, and then there was the finishing of it. For the listener, awareness of the band’s story fills even banal moments with weight. Deheza isn’t trying to grieve here — she’s done that privately — but her pain is the inescapable, parallel narrative of the album. The ringing, slow-jam banger “On My Heart” describes the architecture of a strained romantic relationship, shot through with the listeners’ knowledge that Deheza returned to finish the song alone.
The heartbreak is both narrative and metanarrative at once, an album that grieves even when it isn’t explicitly grieving. When Deheza sings, “There was a you before me/ There was a me before you/ And that’s just the way it goes,” it’s meant as a reassuring and independent gesture in the context of the song, but it rips at the guts when you consider her grief. Still, the synths bang on.
Deheza and Curtis make nothing droopy or lachrymose here. The energy of the original demos — again, a broadcast from a time before Curtis knew he was sick — save the album from being, strictly speaking, morose. Even the love-sick “Open Your Eyes”, where Deheza channels the rapid-fire lyrics that make “On My Heart” so satisfying, glitters with a brand of optimism. Narrative perspective shifts across the story of a failed relationship. Deheza sings, “I know your heart is broken, and you’ve been weeping,” later iterating, “My heart is broken, and I’ve been weeping.” The song’s last lyrics are the bright-eyed “You’ll fall in love again.” Deheza doesn’t want your pity at all.
The album’s second half, after the excellent “On My Heart” and “Open Your Eyes”, is uneven. The miasma of echoing synthesizers trends directionless on “Elias”, and “Signals” chirps with a frantic but unpleasant energy. “Music Takes Me”, with its double entendre title, shows Curtis’ influence in the low end, a buzzing bass line and drum pattern that sound like a less bombastic version of his first band, The Secret Machines. Deheza drifts above it all, singing, “Thank you for all you gave.” The energy of the album’s first three songs has descended into a slow-motion entropy by the time closer “This Is Our Time” arrives. “Our time is indestructible,” Deheza coos, an unmemorable musical moment, if an achingly human one.
Art is always memorial — a broadcast from a particular moment in the past, taken forward into the iteration of the present from which the viewer or listener gazes back across a span of history. When considered as a captured and fleeting moment, art deals necessarily in loss. Creative artifacts reflect some generative, past moment now gone. When we speak of art, we speak of grief. That Deheza and Curtis document their art across the membrane of actual loss grants the album a mimetic grace. They memorialize a memorial. Like SVIIB, life and loss are imperfect, too, a best guess at who we were before moving on. By the end, we too are everywhere and nowhere.
Essential Tracks: “On My Heart”, “Open Your Eyes”