Published May 14, 2019The colour-blasted skull that stares out from the cover of Rich Aucoin's new album, Release, is his own.
The Halifax-based musician had a 3D-printing company create a copy of his underlying bone structure, which another artist, Laura Dawe, colourized in bright hues. The visual's a simple summation of what Aucoin was looking to explore on his third full-length; it might be uplifting in tone, but Release is a record about the end.
"Originally it was going to be called Death," Aucoin says, in interview with Exclaim!. He's unpacking ideas of mortality across its 11 songs, but Release is far from a darkly existential rumination. Instead, the album centres on the freedom we gain by letting go of fixations with what comes next, focusing instead on the here and now.
In typical Aucoin style, it's doled out in big, polymorphic waves of pop-electronica, backed by propulsive, shifting instrumentation — courtesy of more than 70 collaborators — and Aucoin's own comforting voice.
The themes of Release sprung from two books. Aucoin had been reading The Worm at the Core, a psychology text based on a Pulitzer-winning tome by Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death.
"What both of those books are talking about is how our understanding of our mortality brings about this terror and anxiety, and everything we put together for the way that we view existence is our own personal terror management theory," Aucoin says. "And so everything that we hold on to as our various beliefs moves towards this end, of coping with this knowledge of our inevitable non-earthly existence."
But problems arise, Becker notes, when one's coping mechanism seems threatened by another's. So Aucoin leaned Release in a less antagonizing direction: the song titles are meant to be read with the album title in front of them — Release "The Fear," Release "The Self" and so on. Lyrics gently prod at unshackling oneself from certain ideas — "Why do you want control? / It's running with and without you / It's moving in and around you," goes a line in "The Change" — while the wordless drifts of instrumental between them seem to offer space to process the ideas at hand.
"Pretty much everything on the record is letting go of these concepts," Aucoin notes.
Release also syncs up with the first two-thirds of Disney's animated Alice in Wonderland, turning it into a visual metaphor for the album's themes. Linking his music with a film component isn't new territory for Aucoin; 2014's Ephemeral matches up a 1979 clay-mation version of The Little Prince, 2011's We're All Dying to Live had a visual composed out of 30 movies in the public domain, and his first EP was tuned to the animated classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, though he got a cease-and-desist letter about that one.
Aucoin's favourite record, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Dark Side of the Moon, famous for its sync-up with The Wizard of Oz.
"I originally wanted to go to film school from high school, and took a detour through philosophy and contemporary studies," Aucoin explains. "So then I made a record, and I knew if I synced it up to something in the same way as Pink Floyd, then it would be a satisfying thing to be able to show someone at the same time, and feel like I kinda made a movie, even if I didn't shoot anything."
A drawback to that approach has been the time required to marry his audio to those visuals. Aucoin's hoping to speed up his output going forward; he's already working on record number four, with Release serving as the conclusion of a particular era.
"I'm viewing [Release] as the end of the first chapter of my music making," he says. "The last part of the trilogy of the first three records, which are all about mortality, but looking at it through different scopes."
But the idea of the present moment seems inextricably linked to Aucoin's art: his legendary live shows, often delivered with Aucoin in the crowd, seem geared towards expanding an instant of connection. Release's subject matter is a through-line of his songwriting, too—it's obvious that these sentiments, of what we do with the time we have, carry a great deal of weight for him. But Aucoin's hesitant to expand too much into his personal feelings on mortality.
"This has been the hard part of talking about this record," he says. "One of the big things of the record was, I don't want to create any anxiety for someone by saying 'This is what I think'," he says. "The simplest thing is that I have a lot of hopes for what things might happen, but also, am just trying to react to everything that I'm observing in the present, and trying to be present as much as I can."
Release is out on May 17 courtesy of Haven Sounds.