Thurston Moore’s “By the Fire” is a lot like 2020: a tense, disorienting swirl where time no longer matters and it’s hard to remember anything besides darkness. From the foreboding opener “Hashish” to the finale “Venus,” which melts into a droning fade-out, the indie-rock auteur has composed the soundtrack to the abyss, where when you think you’ve found the bottom, it’s just a portal into more horrors.
As visceral and haunting as “By the Fire” is, it’s also delicate, and, in its own weird way, beautiful. In “Cantaloupe,” Moore unleashes blasts of fuzz guitar, but later builds oceanic swells reminiscent of the Pink Floyd opus “Echoes” while soling over it. “White gardenias in your eyes,” he sings, stretching out the “s” at the end of “eyes.” “Breath,” one of four songs more than 10 minutes long, has a four-minute intro (even the shorter songs are sectioned off by lengthy openings) and is propelled by prominent, throbbing bass. As the tune twists and turns, the chaos subsides before a two-handed hi-hat pattern beckons it back, paving the way for a reprise of the intro.
“Siren,” another long track, follows a similar path. About four minutes in, it modulates into an exotic, Eastern feel, then tumbles into a dense cluster of guitar noise and cymbal swells. After a dead stop, Moore reintroduces the pretty and introspective guitar figure that anchors the intro.
Seven songs in, the airy and sweetly introspective “Dreamers Work” offers some shelter from the storm, but “They Believe In Love (When They Look At You)” reminds us it’s 2020, spiraling wildly while offering some positive declarations in the lyrics, or are they to be taken ironically?
Moore’s guitar work has influenced some of the more interesting players of the past 20-plus years, like Stephen Malkmus, Doug Martsch and J. Mascis, and it’s all on display throughout “In The Fire,” from mammoth blasts of fuzzed-out post-punk to linear, melodic lines that tell stories most lyricists can’t convey. It’s that narrative feel, more so than the instrumental innovation and prowess, that is most interesting.
Musically and thematically, “By The Fire” is an exercise in tension and release — minus the release. There are hints of resolution sprinkled here and there, but unlike most music in any genre, the tension isn’t a setup for a payoff. It is not a means to an end, it’s the thing. To some listeners, this might be disappointing, but it’s an authentic and immersive experience, and it’s art mirroring life in the hellscape that is 2020: a world on fire, humanity with its nerves exposed, just trying to hold on.