To record Adult’s sixth album, Detroit House Guests, husband-and-wife duo Adam Lee Miller and Nicola Kuperus invited a series of experimental musicians and artists—Nitzer Ebb’s Douglas J. McCarthy and Swans’s Michael Gira among them—to spend three weeks living and working together at their Michigan home. It was an immersive experience that the band has described as “a total anthropological sound experiment.” And while the result yielded a much wider vocal scope than that of the band’s previous efforts, which have leaned heavily on Kuperus’s detached monotone, Adult remains fixated on finding inventive ways to fascinate and unnerve their listeners.
Miller and Kuperus layer the songs on the album with overlapping echoes and disorienting stereophonic sounds; they often repeat words or phrases, sometimes even transposing sentences into garbled nonsense so as to intensify the sense of chaos. Clanging or screeching percussion can sound like someone banging on pipes in the basement, and tracks are often underpinned with whirring synth effects that create an atmosphere where one’s senses come to feel frayed, even untrustworthy. As Kuperus puts it on “Enter the Fray”: “These surfaces aren’t what they appear to be.”
Through Adult’s skewed aesthetic lens, a tense meditation on inner peace emerges. Gira lends his baritone to “Breathe On,” his mantra-like backing vocal combining with the mindfulness of Kuperus’s lyrics to make oneness with the universe a terrifying prospect, a kind of invasive boundlessness: “No skin, surrounds you/No sense, inside you.” This recurs on Gira’s other contribution, “As You Dream,” where chant-like guttural vocalizations most often associated with sacred experiences take on a note of the sinister.
Existentialist dread pervades Detroit House Guests, which insists that nothingness and emptiness are at the core of human experience. Absence of essence is a recurring theme throughout, whether overtly on tracks like “P rts M ss ng” or more subtly on “We Are a Mirror,” as Kuperus sings, “This is the way the body works,” as though the image in the looking glass were instructing the gazer on how to be human. Even the more upbeat numbers are fraught, as on “We Chase the Sound,” a churning, anomalously danceable track that adds to the manic energy with the sound of frenzied breath and lyrics about “nonsense” and a “taste of madness.”
Detroit House Guests may be at its most uniquely compelling when it flirts with impenetrability. That manifests on “Uncomfortable Positions” through indecipherable utterances and Menoh’s disturbing laughter. With “This Situation,” the repeated robotic phrase “This situation can’t go on indefinitely” becomes downright frightening as it collides with the other half of Kuperus’s multi-tracked vocal, which jumbles up the words of a sentence to create a mechanized split personality flittering over a dystopian drone.
Adult succeeds here in crafting an unsettling musical experience—across which the familiar is recast in an uncanny new light—that’s hell bent on subverting our beliefs. Though the group revels in songs about entropy and unsustainability, Detroit House Guests understands that an intrepid embrace of anxious energy can help us to push the limits of human endurance.