A retrospective look at Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die

Ever noticed that in North America they refer to all chelonians as turtles whereas here in Ol’ Blighty we distinguish between turtles, terrapins and tortoises?  Those damn Yanks are always dumbing things down aren’t they?  Well, it turns out they’re right.  There’s no real difference, it’s turtles all the way down!  The word Tortoise probably sounds a bit more exotic if you’re from Chicago rather than Chigwell, but it’s still an unusual choice for a band name, being a somewhat ponderous and sedate animal.  But when you look a little deeper it starts to make sense.  With a tortoise there’s no wasted energy, when one wrong turn could cost you a whole day, everything you do has to be perfectly considered!  And it’s the same with Tortoise’s second studio album Millions Now Living Will Never Die, an album which turns 25 years old at the end of January, where the band show their meticulous attention to detail.  Adding former Slint guitarist David Pajo to their ranks, the American Midwest natives produced an album which supplied a blueprint for the post-rock genre and had a huge influence on the formation of math-rock and Midwest emo.

The opening song ‘Djed’ takes up almost half of the album’s running time and is a slow-burning chronicle told by wandering guitar and bass lines, manipulated samples and subtle synth work, a song which deconstructs itself with whirring helicopter-blade static and regenerates using the crushed remains of its former existence, adding beguiling marimba and glockenspiel, evoking a post-party coastal drive as dawn begins to break.  A short lo-fi hip-hop reprise of the opening refrain leads us to the shore where we are taken up by the wistfully-listing tidal flow of second track ‘Glass Museum’, showcasing Pajo’s dynamically eloquent guitar lines, with warm lulls breaking into a dramatic, angular maelstrom before pulling back into calmer waters again.  Following the claustrophobic, bass-led interlude of ‘A Survey’ is the most urgent song on the album.  ‘The Taut and Tame’ reveals the band’s love of wonky time signatures and brings the drums and percussion of John Herndon and John McEntire to the fore.  The beats on this record are as crisp as freeze-dried lettuce and emphasise the crystal sharp production style, which is laudable for an album recorded in 1996. 

Analogue bleeps and synth washes characterise the short and dreamlike ‘Dear Grandma and Grandpa’ before the downtempo, dark jazz of final track ‘Along the Banks of Rivers’, a furtive trip through the smoky back alleys of a sleepy downtown.  It is around this time when Millions Now Living Will Never Die starts to make the most sense for first-time listeners, the slow realisation that you’ve been craftily nudged and gently guided through an ever-shifting zoetrope of playfulness and melancholia.  This is an album that is content to wait for you to come to it, seeing no need to advertise its grandeur it carefully ensnares you, leaving you hopelessly entangled, only revealing its true nature after it has sunk into your subconscious and almost imperceptibly cast its spell, calling you back into its strange web.

Header image: Independent Ethos