BWW Album Review: The Bizarre Brilliance of OCTET
Before you even press play on a Dave Malloy album, you already know you're in for an unusual experience. Even by Malloy's standards, though, Octet is delightfully bizarre. Structured as meeting of an internet addicts' support group, the a capella chamber musical is less a singular story than an assemblage of individual stories, and, in its own unique way, it works brilliantly. If you're looking for a traditional show, this isn't it, but if you're looking for a smart, often witty meditation on technology in the modern world, this definitely is it.
Octet is, essentially, about its characters' experiences with and relationships to technology, told through a series of loosely connected songs that place each character in the spotlight, one by one. Oh, and each song corresponds to one of the Major Arcana cards in a tarot deck. It is the epitome of a modern musical that doesn't just pay lipservice to experimentation with form and content, but rather goes all-in. It's not "easy" listening by any means, with lyrics and melodies that sound very little like what you're used to - but that's part of its power: this is what the "internet age" sounds like when it's put to music.
The album is bookended with a pair of "hymns": "The Forest" and "The Field." Where the rest of the show uses sharp, pointed language to deal with themes of alienation, these two songs are in a different style altogether. They're elegant, slower, moodier, and gentler, painting a portrait of the world outside all our screens where "the words you and I fall away, and there's nothing left to say." In sharp contrast with the other songs, packed with hyper-aware observations about how we're all alienated from each other, these songs offer an alternative, a world where we don't need a 280-character response to everything, but instead can just be human together.
In between, though, we get a lot of very darkly funny riffs on what it means to live in a world defined by digital media and technology. Margo Seibert's "Refresh" is narrated by a woman who's the subject of an unspecified but deeply embarrassing viral "meltdown" video. The song evokes dual emotions: laughter at the increasingly ridiculous obsession she has with reading about herself, and a sort of dark pity as she gets more and more agitated. We're not sure how to feel - and then, brilliantly, we get called out for it at the end of the song: "This all happened so fast / Too fast for our fledgling empathy / The tech got away from us / And we weren't ready."
That's really the point of the album: alternately laughing at and feeling emotional over the messy realities of life lived digitally. You've got Starr Busby's quiet sadness of "Glow," the creepy-funny vibes of Alex Gibson on "Candy," and the weird surrealness of J.D. Mollison's "Little God." One of the breakout songs of the album is, of course, "Solo," which starts out as a darkly funny song about the horrors of dating apps and moves into the frankly terrifying calculus of figuring out how to reject a man without him reacting violently - and how that radicalization happens anyway. Adam Bashian and Kim Blanck are nothing short of stunning.
In all his scores, Malloy's voice is clear and distinct. It's not just the melodies, which are somehow equally jarring and beautiful. It's his unique gift for turning conversational language into thoughtful lyrics with a minimum of mannered lyric-ness. And yet, he's not above some delightful wordplay - honestly, who else would write a tongue-twister of a lyric like "Proclamations, provocations, fabrications, defamations, exclamations, indignation, and poor punctuation"? Internal rhymes and a dark, wry sense of humor infuse every line, and it makes for a rich listening experience.
Much like his best-known work, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Octet mellows down by the end, offering up a gentle, thoughtful epilogue with nature imagery that suggests the good and great possibilities of humanity, if only we stop for a moment to realize it. It's not a naive optimism, because we've seen all the dark and unpleasant stuff too, but we also have this complicated mix of emotions: frustration, glee, disgust, anger, a bit of schadenfreude. That dose of gentle hope at the end is the catharsis that elevates it to something more than just a critique of the digital age. Octet is a weird experience, there's no doubt about that, but it's ultimately a rewarding one too.