As complicated as it is to describe the appeal of Quarantine without dishing out the tried-and-true “so bad it’s good” shtick, you can sum it up pretty well with the title and album artwork. For one thing, the prevailing sense of isolation and illness that festers inside this album resembles what I would imagine being quarantined feels like, with an equally disturbing sterile environment encapsulating the listener at all four walls. Every now and then, a terrifying cry lets loose from the heart, broken and restrained, as if it is physically impossible to express it. The inner human trapped deep inside rears its head to the surface every now and then to remind you that there is in fact a person involved here in this incredibly nonhuman soundscape. Secondly, the album artwork makes more than a good visceral metaphor. Something traditionally beautiful can be found destroying itself, deconstructing the sum of its parts into something horribly grotesque yet marvelous at the same time. Some might call it a beautiful train wreck, but a fiasco this album is not. Rather, it is something that feels like it’s barely holding on, a dilapidated train on the fringe of breaking, aching and creaking, ready to collapse at any given moment, anxiously holding together and aware of its terrible state. You ride the train and you can tell something is wrong, but the train obviously can’t cry for help. Instead, you’re left with a tense atmosphere imposing that something is horribly wrong, but in such a frighteningly subtle way that you can’t say for certain what’s going to happen. You’re left completely unnerved with uncertainty boiling inside of you, and no one is there to reassure you that “you’re just paranoid.”
This tense atmosphere is more than just a product of the bleak synthesizers and glossy electronics that make up Quarantine’s instrumental backdrop. It doesn’t take long before the album’s hideously raw vocals induce cringing in the listener, (and God knows I cringed when I first heard “Years”) just one of many nerve-wracking components at work here. Shaky melodies hold up “Thaw” with about as much stability as a half-finished tower of Jenga, while elsewhere your ears are desecrated by the painfully off-kilter and dehumanized vocals of “Carcass.” It wouldn’t be surprising if you hated Quarantine on first listen, but to give up after that would be forsaking something that reveals itself after many layers to be an incredibly beautiful piece of heartbreak.
For instance, “Years” amounts to something like a soundtrack to insomnia; a dreamy haze teases you from underneath a barrage of loud and invasive thoughts that tarnish peace of mind, keeping your dreams just out of reach. Soon, “Years” transforms into something incredibly peaceful (in a fucked up way) and the most jarring song on the album winds up as the most memorable. With your ears trained to piece together murals out of pieces of broken glass, previously distressing pieces like “Airsick” and “MK Ultra” are suddenly beautiful, tinged with remorse and stains of heartsickness. Halo’s lyrics are defeated and empty; “Caught behind a wall of tears/Distorted liquid image of you/The signal keeps cutting out but one thing is clear/Nothing grows in my heart, there is no one here”; the accompanying music is sterile and inhuman, the desolation is tangible and often radiant. It is also incredibly shy, and tries to scare you away so not to let you get too close to its exposed core. Approach with care and Quarantine will reward you lavishly.
Full Album (buy or preview) from Hyperdub