Madeleine Cocolas – Ithaca (Room40, 2020)

When I was fifteen I went to Iceland on a school trip; we spent a week there, travelling up into the North and then circumnavigating the East coast to return to Reykjavik. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, not only seeing this very alien foreign country in all its icy wonder and astonishing landforms, but also thanks to the company and camaraderie between us all. On the plane on the way out, as I often do, I stared out the window at the disappearing country below and said my goodbyes, and promised I would be back.

It took ten years for me to return, and not a year went by that I didn’t think about that place and getting back there. I often wondered if it’d happen, and if/when it did, would it be the same? Would it be like how I remembered it, or would changes to the both of us render the experience drastically different? Was it a singular event that couldn’t be recaptured? Troubling, but exciting.

Ithaca is about return too, but rather back to Madeleine’s Brisbane home than to a favoured foreign land. With many years and many miles between visits, the same desires and frustrations are felt and the same questions are raised: What will it be like to go back?

It’s a confusing experience, confounding and anxious. Early pieces “Across The Sea, But Not Yet” and “A Promise” echo those sentiments and intentions of homecoming, the desire and inclination there, maybe even the tickets booked, but the long wait in anticipation. The former is spectral, vocals moving mistily as piano strokes splash and sparkle with intent. The latter is more relaxed, safe in the knowledge of its guarantee. All shifting hues, pastoral guitar and bass pick their way through the bucolic drones, growing brighter all the time as the fateful promised day draws near.

There’s a specific sort of intimacy in sound when we reach “Past The Floodline”, with its crunching field recordings underfoot, evoking memories of this place from times gone by. Idiosyncratic piano movements from earlier begin to reappear as though in a dream, moving slowly and carefully to savour and also analyse these moments. A drone veil hangs lightly in the background, carefully delineating the line between past and present, separating the two in gossamer strands.

Then things begin to spiral, none of this feels quite right. “Circular” feels empty, warbling in distal synths, sporadic percussion, and humming glitch. The loop is trying to close but it’s misaligned somehow, an eerie dissonance prevents it from happening. Things have changed. “A Basic Understanding” then comes along with its Emeralds-esque vibes, all spacey synth arpeggiations and filled with energetic electronic textures. It thrums with complexity, fraught with feeling and wracked by a sense of alienation. It cycles as it surges along, repeating the same worries to itself: Has it been too long?

Resignation sets in in penultimate “The Heart Doesn’t Lie (Except When It Does)”, lost to slow piano chords suspended in a lonely void. What did we do wrong, is this really how we feel? But these issues are scattered to the wind in the effortlessly beautiful closer “Return Home”. The piano turns back upon itself into lighter, homely, caressing strokes, bright and clear and gentle. Susurrations and drone percolate in the backfield, exuding more romantic force that we absorb earnestly to displace our fears.

In either experience, whether it be me returning to a beautiful place I look back upon fondly, or Madeleine’s travel back to her original home, there’s always that fantasy of memory, an inescapable nostalgia that threatens to upset our interactions with beloved spaces. As much as the past influences our expectations, however, reality is always a different story, and the softening upon approach and subsequent reintegration is effortlessly organic, despite the complicated tableau of feelings that preceded it.