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How Disco Puppet turned adversity into songcraft

On ‘Love And Everything Depressing’, Disco Puppet adjust their musical approach and meet bad times head-on

Shoumik Biswas. Photo by Ali Bharmal
Shoumik Biswas. Photo by Ali Bharmal

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Three years ago, Shoumik Biswas woke up with a loud ringing sensation in their ears. The 29-year-old musician and visual artist didn’t need a doctor to tell them it was tinnitus. It’s one of the professional hazards of working in or around live music—spending hours standing right next to redlining amps and PAs isn’t good for the ears. The ringing usually goes away soon, possibly taking away a couple of percentage points of your hearing ability with it, and leaving you with the lurking fear of impending permanent hearing loss.

In Biswas’ case, the tinnitus was around for the long term. And it was accompanied by a hyper-sensitivity to loud and harsh sounds: like the electronically garbled drums and the clattering industrial synths that are a signature element of their music as experimental electronica act Disco Puppet. Biswas would eventually learn that they had developed hyperacusis, a disorder that affects the perception of loudness. Weeks of repeated visits to ENT specialists, as well as frantic googling, offered no real hope. The best advice they received, repeatedly, was to learn to live with it.

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It’s hard to imagine the existential fear of a musician faced with the prospect of no longer being able to play—or maybe even listen to—their music. The professional and financial problems this presents are bad enough. But every time Biswas picked up a laptop to work on a song, once-familiar synths and electronic drums were now physically painful to the ears. Imagine being a writer whose eyes hurt at reading their favourite words. Or a banker who develops an allergy to money. It’s a terrifying fate to stare in the face.

Love And Everything Depressing—Disco Puppet’s fourth studio album, out on 24 April—is about coming to terms with that fate. The album’s 10 songs were written and composed in the middle of that crisis, on the only instrument Biswas’ ears could bear: a friend’s old nylon-string guitar. That guitar became a lifeline, and before they knew it, the drummer-turned-experimental beatmaker had written an album full of songs led by just a guitar and their voice.

This new approach has paid dividends. While their earlier work is notable for its genre-defying diversity of sounds and dizzying structure and tempo changes, Love And Everything Depressing is a lot more focused—even traditional—in its songwriting. The guitar—played with delicate grace and a melancholic baroque grandeur that brings to mind Nick Drake—becomes the consistent anchor around which Biswas builds the orchestral compositions. And after years of being subjected to every inhuman experiment that their gear would allow—uncanny valley autotune, helium-gas falsetto, just chopping it up as samples—Biswas’ voice is finally allowed to take centre stage, to devastating effect.

Indie-folk opener Come Over is a great example. The song’s intricately finger-picked guitar is backed only by a barely-there bass pulse, later replaced by rough homespun percussion—essentially the sound of skin on wood. Biswas’ languidly drawled out invitations to “come over” paint a vivid picture of post-apocalyptic slackerdom—lying in bed, watching “what’s left of television”, recuperating in amiable apathy. And then their voice transforms into gossamer threads of falsetto, layered over each other like a tastefully draped sari.

The vocals are also the high point of Spring (a blade of grass emerges from the earth), an appropriately dirge-like ballad in the style of early 2000s mope-rock luminaries like The National and Guided By Voices. I don’t want to die alone/ but it looks like I might have to do it on my own, Biswas croons in beat-down melancholy, before shifting gear to trance-like euphoria. And there is something deeply haunting about the way Biswas repeatedly chants down on my luck on the eponymous track, a dead-eyed croon that sounds even more heartbreaking when the drums and synths crash in half-way through, muscling the song towards a crushing synth-garage breakdown.

Like any self-respecting artist in the middle of an existential crisis, Biswas tries to link their inner turmoil with the state of the world around us. There are scattered references to “the war” and strife, and the mundanity of life after the world has seemingly ended is a recurring theme through the record. And while not many of us have had to deal with the potential loss of a major sense, there is something universal about the feeling of helplessness Biswas tackles on this record—of being buffeted by forces beyond control, of seeing disaster casually stroll up your garden path and being unable to do anything about it, and the sheer disorientation of having to live your daily life as if everything was normal.

Everyone speaks of the banality of evil but what about the banality of life lived under evil , or in the face of disaster? Perhaps it’s that creeping sense of everyday dread—one I certainly feel more and more these days—that explains the emotive resonance of the album’s closing suite of tracks, particularly No Job. The track starts off like a meta-referential slacker anthem in the proud tradition of Beck’s iconic hit Loser, with its laconic declarations of I write a sad song/ will it make me famous?/ wouldn’t it be funny?

But there is too much sincerity and anticipatory grief in Biswas’ voice as they ask, will you be there when I lose my mind?, to make that first impression stick. Biswas is not hiding behind Gen Xer irony—the despair is real. When the guitar cuts out midway, to be replaced by a string section, with arrangements that borrow from north Indian and Middle Eastern folk, it carries all the emotional heft and weight of a classic Delta blues solo. So when the guitar returns, joined by war drums pounding out martial rallying cries and droning guitar distortion, that triumphant crescendo celebrates not only coming to terms with their condition (which is now manageable) but also a triumph over that broader malaise of fear and dread.

Slumber reinforces that sense of hard-won spiritual victory, simultaneously hopeful and anxious that the sepia-tinged zen they have finally found does not slip out of their hands like so many dreams. It’s also the most sonically unpredictable and adventurous track on the album, reminiscent of experimental pop icons Animal Collective in the scope of its compositional ambition. The song’s crescendo—a Christmas horror-film symphony of bright strings, nutcracker drums, schoolyard bells and circus march rhythm—pulses with cheerful menace, as in the middle of it all Biswas’ cheerful sing-song voice repeats, I’m in trouble again.

Like many of the album’s best moments, it’s at once beautiful and mildly terrifying. If I have any criticism of Love And Everything Depressing, it’s that it misses the spontaneous insanity of Biswas’ earlier work as Disco Puppet. The songs still mutate and transform but the shifts are no longer so thrilling or sudden—at times you can even see them coming. It’s something that fans of their earlier work will miss, but if that’s the trade-off for such beautifully realised and evocative songcraft, then it’s a compromise we will happily accept.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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