In the last month, Tyler Barstow has spent many days and nights deep-diving into the Ricky Eat Acid catalog, in advance of the release of Talk To You Soon.
I’ve been lying awake for awhile now dreaming about a forgiveness machine. Something similar to what Karen Green made, maybe, after David Foster Wallace's suicide. Something simple. Mistakes go in and don’t come back out. No noise in the day to day and nothing heavy to carry around. I’m not sure, but I think it’s part of the process we’ve called “growing up.” And, directionally optimistic stuff aside, it’s not a bad turn of phrase no matter what any guru might say. I’ll leave it to someone else to write about Up-Towards-What but it has enough naturalism in it to feel true to the degree we need it to. Hats off for our vernacular, I guess. Anyway, it’s one of the hardest parts of getting older, I think, and why nostalgia is such a big struggle for so many people. We certainly miss specific people and places, there’s no doubt about that. Life-Was-Good is, after all, usually true. But we also miss the way we used to be able to feel about ourselves. The warm-bath-y illusion we had that we were good, without any real proof. We hadn’t been tested in any meaningful way yet. We’d talked for hours on vacations and patios about what love and life are or are supposed to be based on a rubric no one could really even cite with any specificity, but we hadn’t been in the room yet with our spouse while the doctor talked us through the meaning of a missing heartbeat. We hadn’t emotionally buckled when someone we loved needed support. We hadn’t yet gone actually dark.
These are the things I’m thinking about as I’m walking my dogs a little before 11 one night last week while listening to Three Love Songs by Ricky Eat Acid again. The sky is bigger than usual and hopeful in the way it only sometimes is. The half built houses near mine are droop-necked and sleeping, and the world feels full of the kind of peace that only comes with the right amount of wine. I don’t drink anymore because that wasn’t the amount I liked but that’s a story for a different time. There’s something humble about this time of night. The pavement seems to be saying not to worry so much, and the trees feel like the big sisters you never had, and you can sense, in every fiber of your being, the importance of being close with other living things. And the music is helping the whole thing in the way that Sam’s always does. There’s that Maya Angelou quote about how people only remember the way you make them feel, and that’s the way I’ve kept track of his music over the years. I think I raved about his music before I even had any idea who he was or what his albums were actually like. I would hear something small from him and it would follow me around for days. And as the homes huddle closer around me and I begin to feel their feathers bunch, I’m filled with a gratitude for his work that I rarely ever feel.
Here’s the thing: Sam Ray has a gift, and it seems simplistic to talk about it in terms of music. Sort of in the same way, maybe, that it feels simplistic to talk about Dalí in terms of being an artist or Coleridge in terms of being a writer. They each have a way of melting the world into something else. Of slurring it for us in ways we don’t have words for but feel in our chests is true. Some of it may relate to our need to escape. To unburden. To step outside of ourselves and drink deeply of a pan-directional salvation that, on a fundamental level, is actually ok with where we actually are. Sort of in the way you feel towards the characters in Wes Anderson movies. And this kind of art resonates with something that is deeper than art. I don’t know what that thing is, and I’m not sure that Sam does either. I don’t think anyone does, really. Not in any pure way, anyway. And I have a feeling, as I’m crossing the street and suddenly awash in headlights, that figuring out what that is is way above my pay grade and that all of this might just be a sign that I still haven't totally rid myself of the coffee shop philosopher stuff I loathe so much. The stuff that makes you feel really important just for being alive and finishing a few books and whatever.
Anyway. As a bit of history, Sam got the name for his Ricky Eat Acid project from this time his friend Ricky took some acid at a bougie and (inevitably) boring high school house party. Sam left a note for his mom explaining that he was babysitting his friend who was on acid but, because of some combination of being up late and blunt smoking, all he had written on the note was “Ricky eat acid.” Drugs lead to a variety of unexpected places, grammatical and otherwise, so it’s not a huge surprise. Neither is the fact that, when Sam asked Ricky a few weeks later if he was ok with him using the phrase for the name of a new music project he was working on, Ricky agreed. It’s a name that feels like fate even if it wasn’t. And what has ensued since is six-ish years of what seems to me to be one long surrealist electronic masterpiece stretched like canvas and dripping over 16 different releases. I know because I paid for and downloaded them all from Bandcamp a couple months ago. Call me whatever you want, but I love exploring a good backstory.
After listening all the way through his discography and then jumping into his upcoming release Talk To You Soon, the weight behind Ricky Eat Acid feels less directional and more like an intuition. Like Sam has been spending years learning the right places to stand and how long to wait. It’s literal tongue in literal cheek to say that this is drug music, only because it is and then it isn’t. Much in the same way, I guess, that sometimes the drugs are about the drugs and sometimes they aren’t. And this stuff from him is the sound of the cycle of losing and then finding ourselves that we are always in the midst of, no matter what. It’s the sound of saying the word home and having it mean something slightly different each time. Like someone holding a diamond and turning it one face at a time and asking you to look again. And then look again. Etc. At the same time, each of his releases is its own world and, now that I’ve listened through all of them a few times, I’ve started to have the sense that I’m visiting a place wholly other from my own. That each is full of plain-clothes spaceman stuff where both we and the places we go are in a constant state of flux. And if I’ve learned anything in the process, it’s that you never dip your toe into the same Ricky Eat Acid album twice.
Talk To You Soon is the biggest album from him, by far, in terms of production and scope. It’s not less destination-al than the others, it’s just that the place you’re in is bigger and there’s more to explore. People will probably say things about it like “this part reminds me of “All Under One Roof Raving”’ and “this part sounds like “Self Control”’ and so on. And that’s fine. We all take whatever takes we can get sometimes. But all of that will miss the point of what I think makes this record so special. This thing, at its core, is a transmission from inside ourselves. It’s a way of saying, with almost no words, that we are this, and we are this, and we are this, and we are this, all at the same time. To say Sam is better on this one feels weird to me, only because of how many of his old projects I now love. What I’d say instead is that he’s more lucid here, sulky puns notwithstanding. He’s more clear eyed, not so much about any Big Truths as about the small ones he’s so familiar with at this point, both about himself and the rest of the world around him. This is the height of his Art so far. The fullest expression of the beauty he can see through his small window. He isn’t transcending any big ideas like Genre or Form so much as he’s, in his stunningly patient way, taking another turn in his slow, upward spiral towards Some-Kind-of-Light. He can see a little further from up here now, and he can tell us what he sees a little more clearly.
I’m confident that Sam will keep putting out better and better music forever, and I’m not really sure who else I feel that way about at this point. Maybe Frank Ocean and Jamie XX and Justin Vernon and Young Thug and that’s about it. And as I’m hanging up my coat later that night and listening to the sound of happy dogs settling into new leather, I’m struck by just how calm it is to be living under the wonder that my wife and my daughters are while coming to terms with everything I am not, and am not yet, and how Talk To You Soon is what that calm sounds like. What my dark these days feels like. Good-bruised and slow-to-speak. And how I think many more people will feel the same way, in the context of their own lives, when they hear this album. And that we will, unknowingly, then be ameobishly connected because a kid from Baltimore went on an adventure with his acid-jazzed-up friend Ricky in the woods outside some lame party awhile ago. Because he took a trip he hasn’t come back from yet and, in the process, ended up making the only music I know of that explains what it’s like to live under the weight of all of my past, present, and possible selves and learn to how to feel ok with it. Because his work shows us the beauty there is in the prism that we are, and the depth of the love that allows us to give.