Unknown Pleasures: The Art Of The Secret Record

“You have to listen to the notes she’s not playing,” urged Lisa Simpson, rebutting a man who doesn’t get jazz violin. “Pssshhhh,” he sniffed, “I can do that at home.” Have you had a convo like this? Which side were you on? In fairness, ‘challenging’ music is defined by enjoyment. Whether you’re into any number of Johns, Cale or Dillinger, may suggest a litmus for something that is too abstract or in-yer-face on a personal level. Either can be stultifying. However, even Lisa might have a problem with the third option: music that is not there at all. Songs that have been recorded and sealed away, or tossed into the soup of the internet like a carrot shaving. 

It turns out that Earl Sweatshirt and The Alchemist are staying schtum about their YouTube project – an album of indeterminate length that was released sometime in 2020, directly on the platform, under a false name and account. To date, no-one has found this record. Twitter sleuths have come up empty-handed; YouTubers fear insanity. “I can’t even really say anything about it,” said a blase Alchemist in September this year on The Needle Drop. “I’ve been sworn to just leave it alone. It was just one day of madness.” He keeps turning left and right on his chair, his whole body saying no. 

“Is it up on YouTube though?” asks Anthony Fantano.  

“I don’t know, to be honest!” he says, almost shouting, waving his joint. “I have to just let go of it. It’s one of those things, as an artist, you just move on . . . like the guy, y’know, the artist who just burns the studio down.” 

But this is not like burning a studio down. We don’t return to the ashes of a mixing desk and get our ears dirty. What Earl and his producer have done, instead, is create a phantom that may still give us pleasure. And that’s if it was ever real. Perhaps it wasn’t. And if it was, or is, what does it sound like? They might’ve thrown a shoe at the wall for an hour with the mic on. Free of context and expectation, the music could be anything. No Earl-ness, a different alchemy. It could be the music of their lives. 

In the agonising dark, we have no choice but to speculate, to count our toes and fantasies. This is a rare feat today. When an album drops, we expect the deluxe version three months later, and every offcut to be packaged somewhere down the line until there is no mystery left, no ‘what if’ or ‘how come’. We are gluttons for the bonus round. We expect the secret release at any moment. And when that bombs drops, we wish it was bigger. More, more, more, splodged on your homescreen. 

But the Sweatshirt album defies our entitlement. It says, Hey, look. I’m out here somewhere in the wild. Lace up your boots and don’t take a compass. God, you’re not used to this, are you? Sweating? Look harder, you flushed, sweaty cub. Here I am, no, here, behind a Tiny Desk . . .

Truly, it is a marvellous move that other artists should try to match. Letting a piece of music speak for itself is the most anti-bullshit thing you can do, cackling in the face of the algorithm, the playlist, and other technologies that sort and nudge our tastes onward. If the album was discovered, of course, it would benefit from cumulative interest, and soar more quickly to those who’d probably like it. Then again, perhaps it would be so disparate from what we expect from Earl and The Alchemist that no-one would believe detectives on the case, and they’d disbelieve themselves, and the music would linger unloved like the photo print in a crime movie that somehow holds the key to everything yet looks for all intents and purposes like a blur. 

This is wholly distinct from, say, keeping a recording to yourself – legends like Deftones’ Eros and Marvin Gaye’s You’re The Man, the latter of which saw the light of day in 2019 after years of wrangling in the Motown vaults; massive whispers, in essence, that their creators or shepherds have for one reason or another chosen to lock up. Unless a band, singer or label deems it so, we cannot hear them. They are forever closed to us. 

The Alchemist though, with a wink, says his unheard project is a matter of luck. If we want it hard enough, we might find it. And that makes his bait and further bait feel even better than mega-hype limited releases or those that rely on the listener to perform or play the music in a certain fashion. 

Who can top the absurdity of The Wu: Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, The Wu Tang Clan’s ‘one for one’ pressing that took six years to make and remains the most expensive piece of musical art ever sold? I mean, seriously: it was held in a silver box in Morocco, and auctioned to a pharmaceuticals boss, who sold it off to an NFT group, PleasrDOA, as recompense for tax fraud. Once Upon A Time . . . was supposed to rail against disposability, the low ceiling of streaming revenue and barbershop radios, yet looks like it’ll be hitting the internet soon regardless. Because huge records eventually will - if they have a name to market. I suspect The Wu Tang Clan are also happy to (in their words) “inspire and intensify debates about the future of music” while pocketing $2 million, especially to a pharma bro who infamously jacked up the price of AIDS pills by 5,500%. 

Far more interesting was Beck’s Song Reader, the album you originally had to play from sheet music to hear a note of. Covers crept online. Artists shared their takes, hot or not. There’s a great rendition by saxophonist Ties Mellema and vaulting soprano Nora Fischer improving what most of YouTube considers to be a plinky Poundshop ballad. You can carry on searching for the perfect version for you. In due course, however, Beck released the ‘official’ collection of his favourites. It should’ve remained a songbook and thus been more original without any originals. 

Such experiments with our sense of what is product, art and statement or vice versa only go so far until the conceit falls to bits, sanctified and sold in part because it is associated with someone who wants to be known for the trouble. The release is traceable and tainted by purpose. Earl’s album, by contrast, should be purposeless. Well, almost. Its goal is to remain in a scrap of the web with maybe a dozen channel views, or to explode anonymously, avoiding the type of leak that makes J.K Rowling vomit uncontrollably at solicitors. I hope this never changes. I also hope we never find it unless it’s 3AM and you’re sick with weed, doubting the last time you flicked a light switch. 

Back to the real world. Could a megastar or indie darling hide their tunes as a physical release? White Denim did as much for record stores in 2021, a secret album slipping out of the sleeve for preorders expecting a 12-inch. As yet, you can’t get it elsewhere. And Nicolas Jaar had a neat idea a while ago, stuffing a roster of his label artists on an aluminium cube with two headphone jacks – you’re only able to listen when you press play with someone. 

So, what’s next? Daniel Caesar leaving an LP in a pizza pie? Nicki Minaj parachuting notations across Uzbekistan? I am here for it. Help me trip on genius that looks like an old soiled rag. 

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