For a long time I was scared to listen to The First Words We Heard Were Dirt. It had come recommended to me in such hushed tones that it sounded disruptively incendiary and illegal. Not only would the listener of this crazed album burn to ashes, apparently, but he or she might be posthumously imprisoned just for listening– a jar of cinder resting in a jail cell. Music is not often spoke of so potently to me, as contraband, as narcotic, as ordnance. There was the whispered promise that my mind would be blown after listening to The First Words. There was the assurance that once I heard it I would drool with awe, listenerly awe, the awe of hearing a madman master at work, Jayson Nessi, awesomely carving deep, black holes into the edifice of music and the English language.
I was, to say the least, guarded and jealous of it in advance, protesting the very idea of The First Words. Its existence bothered me, and I grew leery of being artistically paralyzed by its reported high oddity and invention, it’s completely unexampled decimation of the album-as-we-have-come-to-know-it. At the time, when I and a few writers I knew fantasized more about how readers might react to what we wrote more than what exactly we might write– our readers would be sprung aloft and unable to land, rendered gummy and mute, form an army, start a new language, or simply melt in malleable form so that we use this “reader spackle” to build an outdoor shelter in Duluth– Nessi’s audience response behavior was the pinnacle of what I thought could be achieved. His fans were so serene. In non-confrontational tones, they could casually remark that he was the best out there, the strangest, oddest, most original musical poet no one had ever heard of. The most dismaying aspect of their allegiance was their seeming indifference to whether or not I ever heard his music– in fact, that they might prefer it if I refrained. More spoil for them, after all. Too many listeners might ruin his story. This anti-missionary approach turns out to be the best recruiting tactic of all. Nessi’s listeners behaved as if they never had to listen to another inventive piece of music again. They had heard the sort of record that finally satisfied their thirst, a final album that could behave as a sort of source bible for anything that might come afterward– the creation text for all new music. I might try to tell them about some other musician, possibly equally as obscure, intense, and wild, and they would listen politely, say “huh”, and then assure me that whoever I was lamely sponsoring had nothing on Nessi. Nessi was onto some sublime weirdness that he achieved so easily it was as if he was writing behind his own back. His very sentences seemed equipped with tracers that generated secondary and tertiary amazements in the wake of the primary spectacle. Nessi was the dogsbody that resulted from a glandular mishap between Mangum, Dylan, Vonnegut, Lennon, Butler and Lennox. That is, if Vonnegut were still alive, Dylan sobered up and they’d all been partying together at the same organ swap.
And the kicker was always the rumor (recently verified) that Nessi left everything for homelessness and caves, spending entire days watching clouds and nights writing songs.
To hear The First Words We Heard Were Dirt (So Now We Are Digging) is to encounter proof that a record can be both emotional and eccentric, smeared with humanity and artistically ambitious, messy with grief and dazzling spectacle. Do not think, however, that you are entirely protected hearing it, although I can mostly vouchsafe about the claims of cindering. At this time, chances are fairly good that you will not burn.
Now you’re on your own.
Oedipa Maas, 2011