Every album title by The Soft Pink Truth has posed a question, beginning innocuously enough with the 2003 debut “Do You Party?” But over the past two decades, the questions have become more profound and philosophical, like the Bible-quoting title of 2020′s “Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?”
Drew Daniel is best known as one half of Matmos, the experimental electronic duo he formed with M.C. Schmidt in San Francisco in 1997, before the couple moved to Baltimore, where Daniel teaches at Johns Hopkins, in 2007. On their own albums and productions for other artists, most notably Björk, Matmos are known for sampling household objects, or even the sounds of surgeons operating on a human body, and arranging those ostensibly nonmusical sounds into beautiful music. Daniel’s work as The Soft Pink Truth tends to use the more conventional dance music palette of drum machines, synthesizers, and occasional live instruments. But ambitious high concepts are still on the menu, often with a more pronounced emotional or political subtexts.
The “Was It Ever Real?” EP is a limited edition “mini-album,” with a closing title track that doesn’t necessarily offer any hints as to what the question on the cover means. It’s the only instrumental track, falling somewhere between a comforting chill-out track at the end of a house music set and the ominous noir of Angelo Badalamenti’s “Twin Peaks” score, with an extended improvisation by guest guitarist Mark Lightcap. By contrast, “You Don’t Know (The Full Rose of Dawn)” is a lush piano house track that you could conceivably drop into a DJ set next to Beyonce’s summer dance smash “Break My Soul.”
“Was It Ever Real?” features a cover of “The Anal Staircase,” the opening track from the English group Coil’s 1986 album “Horse Rotorvator,” a watershed release in the industrial genre. The Soft Pink Truth’s version has a warmer, more palatable sound than the clanging, chaotic mix of the Coil original, transforming the harsh synth arpeggios of the outro into a jazzy horn section. But you can’t really say that any version of a song called “The Anal Staircase” isn’t confrontationally queer.
In recent years, The Soft Pink Truth has made a bit of a niche out of covers that transform some of the abrasive music ever made into something that captures the communal euphoria of dance music. 2014′s “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” turned underground black metal classics into propulsive techno tracks, and 2020′s “Am I Free To Go?” similarly adapted ’80s crust punk songs.
The Soft Pink Truth’s next full-length album — “Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This?” — is due in October. And “Was It Ever Real?” functions like an appetizer, previewing the album in the opening track, “Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This? (Dark Room Mix).” But the 23-minute EP is a generous meal in its own right, long enough that you can lose yourself in its immersive grooves.
In the promotional copy for the album, Daniel explained that the title came from a friend who was asked “Is it going to get any deeper than this?” while DJing. The woman asking the question at the DJ booth might have just been hoping to hear some Larry Heard-style deep house, but Daniel’s embrace of the phrase probably has broader implications. Chic’s Nile Rodgers has long espoused the importance of a “deeper hidden meaning” in dance music. And The Soft Pink Truth’s music often sets that principle into action: even seemingly simple four-on-the-floor beats and repetitive mantra-like lyrics are tied to a larger artistic goal or cultural context, teased out more explicitly in liner notes and interviews.
“Was It Ever Real?” is part of a series of limited edition releases on Thrill Jockey Records, celebrating the storied independent label’s 30th anniversary this year. Thrill Jockey has been based in Chicago for its entire existence, but for the last 15 years or so, the label has acquired a habit of signing Baltimore-based acts, including Future Islands, Daniel Higgs, Double Dagger, Arbouretum, Dustin Wong, Thank You, and Peals. And for the past decade, both Matmos and The Soft Pink Truth have recorded for the label.
So this EP, which features a supporting ensemble of veteran Baltimore musicians, including Andrew Bernstein of Horse Lords and Tom Boram, feels like a fitting union of an artist and a label that both made their names elsewhere but have happily adopted Baltimore as a home.
Al Shipley is a Maryland-based music and culture writer.
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