Methyl Ethel’s album was not made for you. Let’s get that straight right now. The second LP from the Perth art-rock outfit dropped out of the mind of Jake Webb—song by song, like Tetris blocks morphing shape until they locked into place. When the level cleared, he’s on to the next puzzle. While Everything Is Forgotten was just released March 3 on 4AD, Webb’s consumed by another project, tinkering away at an album that we won’t hear for “a long time.” At least that’s what Webb says to me on the phone, calling from some Australian bathroom where he went to find some tranquility.
“It started out just for me and it continues to be just for me,” Webb clarifies over a crackling connection. “It’s kind of like a really cryptic crossword or something. There’s pleasure in when you get it right.”
Methyl Ethel, named after an ingredient for the fiberglass, began in 2013 when he started sharing his lush bedroom productions with the world. In 2014, Webb hired Thom Stewart and sound engineer Chris Wright to fill out a band for live shows. His first two EPs, along with his debut album, Oh Inhuman Spectacle, had bell-toned guitars swimming in reverb, synths coursing through the songs like painkillers and a drum machine unobtrusively tugging the whole boat forward. It’s moonlit shoegaze for calming the body and challenging the mind.
Give Everything Is Forgotten a spin, however, and the first track lifts you from reverby waters and plunks you onto dry land. “Drink Wine” bursts open with an arpeggiated keyboard pulsing forth in quadruple time—like the bobbing needle of a sewing machine, laying down the seams that hold together the patchwork album. Songs like “Ubu” and “L’Heure Des Sorciéres” serve up positive pop hooks (beware of earworm lyrics “Why’d you have to go and cut your hair?”) with a wash of vocal harmonies and a groovy-as-fuck bass line. For the first half of the album, at least, a staccato beat provides a hyper pulse. If you listen to Methyl Ethel’s two albums back to back, you’d feel a difference.
But the shift isn’t that complex, Webb says.
“I think maybe to me, the tempo has just gotten a bit faster,” he says. “So in my mind, it wasn’t really a conscious decision to go more pop. The approach felt like it was the same, but the tempo was a bit faster.”
Admittedly, Webb has turned the dial back on his reverb and inserted a bit more rhythm into his guitars. Instead of programming a drum machine, he played a drum kit on Everything Is Forgotten. The extra oomph is apparent, but the new sound isn’t a reaction to anything, he says. He dove right into writing his sophomore album as soon as the first one was finished. “It didn’t give me time to hear opinions from the outside world, really,” Webb says adamantly. “I’m just trying to do a better job straight away.” Any difference in sound was the product of a personal challenge and experimentation.
The second half of the album takes a haunted turn. A glittery disco vibe prevails but the melodies get medieval. Songs like “Groundswell,” “Hyakki Yako” and “Summer Moon” take you through a dream sequence — like you’re at a masquerade, dancing with fancy strangers only to find out they are faceless when they remove their masks. Foreign chords induce a drug-like trance, and soon, you’re hallucinating the twisted, the uncharted, the uncomfortable.
He sings these experiences with the timbre of Kevin Barnes, or a meek Chrissy Hynde, layering each falsetto into a chaotic blend, as if each one represents a different ghost. Methyl Ethel’s vocals have been described as “androgynous” or “gender fluid,” an intentional quality that Webb uses to strip any masculine or feminine characteristics from his songs.
“I don’t want the music to be from either side,” he says. “I just want to be a sonic cynic and not have human personality in there so much.”
Similarly, in press photos, the trio has caked themselves in white paint to make themselves more lifeless. Their “Ubu” music video is mostly devoid of color, and shows them robotically miming a performance while special effects copy and paste their corpse-like expressions onto each other’s faces. “We wanted to keep everything without personality, everything kind of blank,” he says.
Webb sprinkles references to influential art into his song titles, but again, they’re not for you. The titles “Schlager,” “Hyakki Yako” and “Femme Maison” may mean nothing to a layman. To him, the nods to German music, Japanese folklore and French paintings, respectively, give an added depth to his creations. “It’s supposed to misdirect or at least open up to a second level of reading of the song,” Webb says.
From what you can interpret, the songs are packed with themes of tension, anxiety, reservation and stubbornness, and you get the sense that Webb is trying to crack someone while trying to find his own personal truth, something we can all relate to at one point or another. “Holding back now living with you / Just to hear you speak your mind / One at a time / As hard as a sack / When to react? / You were inactive at the start / And I took way too long,” he sings on “No. 28.”
“It’s me writing to myself,” Webb says, “like multiple personalities of myself. But also it’s also a blend of highly personal type of things that I have seen and dealt with in my life.”
So with a blank slate, a genderless voice, a choir of eerie personal struggles and references that aren’t meant to make sense, how do you listen to Everything Is Forgotten when you know it’s not made to entertain you? Well, that’s exactly the point. Without a clear visual, you’re forced to grasp at Webb’s words and create your own creepy narrative. Now it’s up to you to get the puzzle right.