It’s easy to overcontextualize a musical work—to ascribe feelings and emotions to lyrics and music based on external factors in the author’s life. Sometimes a song is just a song, absent of ulterior motives, allegory, or sweeping social statements. However, in the case of Marty Anderson’s one-man band, Okay, it’s hard to separate the music from the facts of its creation.
Anderson, a former member of the California outfit Dilute, was diagnosed with near-fatal Crohn’s Disease and now lives chained to an IV that keeps him alive, albeit in a weak state. The regular band rigmarole of touring and playing out is exceedingly difficult for him. (Keep Okay in mind when encountering tired “make it back on the road” arguments for not buying music.) Quite frankly, this is pop music made while staring into the abyss. However, Huggable Dust is one of this year’s most affecting releases (think about the depressing futility in the title!), because it manages to rise above its story with elegance and resonance. Anderson’s struggles inform the music, but they aren’t all there is to it.
Okay isn’t an immediate or easy listen. Anderson’s voice is, uh, unique. It’s a creaky, warbly thing that’s really hard to describe. (I’ve heard Kermit the Frog mentioned before, but that’s not really fair.) If you’re not a fan of non-traditional voices, then this might not be for you. The songs rest on simple foundations—usually just a couple of chords—on which Anderson impeccably piles on layers and layers of melodies, counter-melodies, synth sweeps, polyrhythmic drum machines, whirrs, buzzes, kazoos.
Surprisingly, this orchestral Tetris never leaves the songs sounding busy, static, or overstuffed. Anderson’s efficiency stretches to the lyrics, which often only consist of one or two lines repeated over and over. But the effect isn’t facile. In fact, the album’s most devastating track features Anderson singing permutations of the same line—”Baby, I’m hardwired to your love”—over swelling low synths and escalating creaks, tics, and pops. This directness, and the wonderfully majestic music, allows Okay to transcend Anderson’s own pain and achieve universality.