Sam Tudor Goes Beyond Language on 'Two Half Words'

BY Kaelen BellPublished May 5, 2021

Sam Tudor's last record, 2017's Quotidian Dream, opened with a tense creep — jumpy fingerpicked guitar swarmed by strings and horns, the shivering "New Apartment" was a fitting introduction to a record defined by unease and paranoia. This time around, Tudor's no less nervy. "My skin is crawling off of me / I don't know where it wants to go," goes a line on Two Half Words opener "Dance Call," but the tension has migrated from the jaw to the hips, a coiled rhythm pushing this wallflower to a darkened corner of the dance floor.

While no less interior, Two Half Words is more rhythmic than any of Tudor's previous records; the moves may be solo shimmies and quiet hand flicks, but it's a notable shift to something resembling groove from an artist who tends toward the baroque or melancholy. The introductory three song run of "Dance Call," "Hideaway" and "Perennials" uses drum machines, shakers, snaps, claps and bouncing synth loops to build glassy webs of rhythm, more Another Green World than Veckatimest.

The arrangements on Two Half Words lean into the promise of its title, finding beauty in halting breaths, whispered voices and shifting melodies. Thoughts don't finish so much as splinter and multiply; the title track's acoustic shuffle mutates into slippery jazz and tropicália, as Tudor's music finds the transformative power he longs for himself on "Change My Shape." There's nothing as burly as Quotidian Dream's relative barn-burner "Quotidian Boy," and without its predecessor's immediate sonic peaks and valleys, Two Half Words' liquid changes feel a bit amorphous on first listen. However, more time spent reveals the subtle drama in its sparkling burble the hooks on Two Half Words are temperature shifts rather than tectonic shifts, melting the icicles instead of shaking the trees.

Tudor's lyrics are largely about communication and its absence; secrets, promises and private moments, the long and quiet things that keep you awake at night. They also, crucially, grapple with the lonesome futility of language itself, the frustration of trying to communicate the incommunicable on "Dancecall," he strains to "fit a feeling in a line," while on "Perennials," he sings, "Everyone's got a different way to say it / But it's a lonely time to be alive." Even with eager ears and all the words in the world, sometimes it's still impossible to say precisely what you feel; a shared loneliness is no less lonely.

And while some of the record's most beautiful moments are also its most lush and communal — the collapsing waves of horn that close "Everybody's Keeping Their Word," the gentle vocal harmonies on "Perennials," or the skittering outro on "Spring" — its quiet peak is in the empty space of fingerpicked album closer "You're a Winner Today." In such naked accompaniment, Tudor strips his lyrics too, opting for a heart-twisting plain speak: "Haven't slept so well in, like, the last three years." It's a sort of pep talk, though, even in the fleeting high, Tudor doesn't let his eye stray from the reliable low: "It's perfect, though it's only minutes long / Go on, feel the feeling / You're a winner today / Doesn't happen much / But it's a good feeling, hey?" It's a pressingly blue little song, but something shifts as strings and drone begin to roll in slowly at the 2:16 mark. Whether they're players or programmed patches, whether Tudor is surrounded by friends or alone in the studio, is not necessarily clear. What is clear is the strange, sad comfort that comes with those rising tones — all the other brief winners and long-time losers, the half-words and non-words, all those things that can't be articulated turned to sound instead.

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