1. Failed Celestial Creatures
2. The Forest Dictation
3. Constellation of Sand
4. Threadbare 1
5. Threadbare 2
6. Threadbare 3
7. Threadbare 4
Writing in Japan during the late 1930s and early 1940s, Nakajima Atsushi drew from classical Chinese texts in order to tackle existential questions that he wrestled with personally. Contemplation about such matters weren't in vogue at the time, and understanding this helps to paint the potential loneliness he felt in having these thoughts. In the afterword to The Moon over the Mountain, the first collection of Nakajima's short stories translated to English, Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner note that his contemporaries would approach fiction autobiographically. In attempting to do this, Nakajima found the results unsatisfactory. He was, after all, just a schoolteacher: how could his philosophical musings be wholly conveyed through such a limited lens? One senses that in his utilization of canonical texts—and his rigid faithfulness to them—Nakajima found both a large enough canvas to work with and a solace in assigning his inner turmoils to characters that were familiar to all.
David Grubbs and Taku Unami's debut collaborative LP draws from two of Nakajima's short stories: "The Moon over the Mountain" and "The Rebirth of Wujing." Both feature protagonists who are deeply distraught, plagued by feelings of inadequacy. Failed Celestial Creatures is a phrase from the latter, and is a descriptor that Wujing places upon himself. As described in Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West, Wujing was once a Curtain-lifting General but was "banished to the lower world for smashing a crystal bowl at a Peach Banquet." There, he fell into the River of Flowing Sand and had sinned by eating monks. In "The Rebirth of Wujing," the skulls that Wujing ate are "attached permanently to his neck," though it is only he that can see them. Even worse, he is unable to recall his previous life in Heaven, and finds it unimportant considering his past self—regardless of how important it was—isn't the same as his current self. This self-perpetuated guilt sets a tone that looms over much of the story, and the entirety of "Failed Celestial Creatures" captures the restless development of persistent melancholy into unrelenting anguish.
While the final moments of "The Rebirth of Wujing" find the titular character unburdened by some of his thoughts, the large majority of the story finds him on a long journey in search of enlightenment. It’s through his numerous unfulfilling encounters with masters and spirits that a deep disappointment can accumulate to the point of clear perceptibility. After five years of traveling, Wujing comes to the conclusion that he hasn’t become any wiser, and has instead become “light and insubstantial, as if he were not materially himself.” “Failed Celestial Creatures” leads us along Wujing’s journey, providing a repetitious and bleak interplay of Grubbs and Unami’s electric guitars to depict its winding but unresolved paths. A frothy electronic tone bubbles underneath, and its presence makes the track feel insular and hollow, especially when the guitars stop playing. Interestingly, its sudden disappearance halfway through the track forces listeners to acknowledge the silence that has taken its place, and the result is an atmosphere that's more desolate than before.
As "Failed Celestial Creatures" continues, the guitar playing becomes more rapid and intricate. Eventually, it leads into the track's climax: six minutes of brash guitar strumming that feels as cathartic as it does violent. One recalls an anecdote early on in the story that explains how monsters such as Wujing were different from humans. The narrator states that monsters have no distinct separation between body and mind; any "sickness of the mind" therefore results in a "severe physical torture and suffering." Grubbs and Unami's guitars howl as if to make this mental-spiritual channel understood. If the bulk of "Failed Celestial Creatures" is comprised of casual ruminations that are quietly evocative, then the final passage is a harrowing damnation of self that's unmistakably palpable. Still, one remembers Wujing's encounter with Master Nujushi near the end of the story. It's through this meeting that he's able to acknowledge his propensity to set himself up for failure, and he boldly makes a decision to live life differently: to try anything without fearing the end result. This changed perspective requires an acceptance of self that can be challenging to arrive at, and it's perhaps this final, pained stretch of "Failed Celestial Creatures" that points towards a hopeful beginning—one that sees this new self as greater than ever before.
"The Moon over the Mountain" finds the reader confronted with a character very similar to Wujing. Li Zheng of Longxi was a low-ranking government official who was determined to live a more gratifying life. He decides to pursue a career in poetry, believing that such a pursuit would allow for his name to be recognized centuries after his death. The decision is perceived as imprudent—he can't provide for his family, and eventually takes up post as an official in a different area to alleviate this issue. Sadly, he's unable to come to terms with such a dissatisfied life and eventually removes himself from society. It turns out that he's transformed into a tiger, and will soon be unable to remember his past life. This identity crisis by means of self-hatred is fully encapsulated by one of his final utterances: "A man who is more concerned about his wretched poetry than about his wife and children deserves the fate of becoming a beast!"
Li Zheng is met by a former friend named Yuan Can in the forest. As a final request, Li Zheng requests that Yuan Can writes down some of his poetry for posterity. Yuan Can hears these poems and notes that while they're good, they're not of the "highest quality." Appropriately, "The Forest Dictation" finds David Grubbs recounting the events of this story through the eyes of Yuan Can. His and Taku Unami's guitars are delicately played, providing a soft bed of sound for the poetry to be clearly heard. As the scene gets described and the guitar chords get bent, the mysteriousness and vulnerability of the encounter is felt. Most noteworthy, however, is the final stanza. Regarding the poems, Grubbs calmly states, "As to their quality, I would not presume to judge." In the story, Yuan Can doesn't dare criticize any of the poetry out loud—in their recitation is Li Zheng's final attempts at finding meaning in his life. In ending the song with this line, Grubbs emphasizes how this withholding of information becomes an act of mercy. In channeling Yuan Can, Grubbs transitively relates with Nakajima himself, understanding that all humans desire to live a life that they deem acceptable.
The album's final five tracks vary in length but all contain the same moody guitar playing found throughout the first two tracks. They act like an extended coda: a meditation on the lives found in Nakajima's stories. In many ways, the album is a continuation of the style that Grubbs started with Prismrose. The lack of percussion here, however, lends itself better to introspective and forlorn landscapes. It's perhaps most reminiscent of Loren Connors's Hell's Kitchen Park, though the tracks here feel like they're given more space to breathe, regardless of length.
Taku Unami's contribution to the overall sound of the record is, as always, hard to pinpoint. One could argue that a couple tracks from Chamber Music Concerts Vol. 1 and his Hontatedori project are analogous, but the Grubbs comparisons are far more tenable. Like most of his work this decade, Unami is successful in drawing out the best from his collaborators, and his keen sense of space and silence contributes to the effectiveness of these pieces. Unami recommended that Grubbs read Nakajima's short stories, so the crucial narrative component of this record would of course be missing without him. In other words, both musicians are crucial to the sound and success of Failed Celestial Creatures. The translators of The Moon over the Mountain describe Nakajima Atsushi's stories as conveying "the search for meaning in a possibly meaningless world." In Grubbs and Unami's playing is a sensitivity to this idea, and Failed Celestial Creatures allows listeners to wander with them, Wujing, Li Zheng, and Nakajima.