Among the pieces of art that made the biggest impact on An Inbuilt Fault—Will Westerman’s second album as Westerman—are two classic films: Ingmar Bergman’s allegorical 1957 masterwork The Seventh Seal and Akira Kurosawa’s probing 1952 sociological drama Ikiru. In totally separate ways, each film follows a protagonist in the throes of an existential crisis, evoking turmoil and stasis, carefully charting out their quests for self-understanding and actualization. On “A Lens Turning,” one of An Inbuilt Fault’s standouts, Westerman comments on a similar kind of troubled journey to the center of the self: “I don’t know who I am anymore,” he sings. “Forgot what I was looking for/I’m noticing how the lens turns/More when I’m asking why.”
This is apt thematic territory for the moment in which the South London-born and Athens, Greece based singer and songwriter wrote much of this music: the winter of 2020-2021, while stuck in Italy for months during near-total lockdown. Emerging from a period of disenchantment with making music, and with the future of his career feeling abstract, it seemed unclear to Westerman whether the material he was recording would ever be heard. Creatively, this offered a strange kind of freedom, and accommodated some of the most adventurous and unselfconscious songwriting of his career. Finding textures became a central concern, with Westerman taking programming and looping into his own hands in a way he never had before, creating polyrhythmic grooves to lend urgency to his inner dialogue.
The record that ultimately resulted from these solo experiments sounds wholly unlike what the description might suggest. An Inbuilt Fault is visceral and live-sounding, full of the sound of breath and the idiosyncratic gestures of acoustic instruments. It creates a spatial feeling, sounding like musicians assembled in a room, passing evolving ideas back and forth. That’s because that is what was happening: After a chance meeting between himself and Big Thief’s James Krivchenia at a show in London, Westerman decided to take a leap of faith and collaborate with the drummer and an extended crew of Los Angeles associates to flesh out his new songs. The Italy demos became jumpoff points for jams which, in imaginatively edited forms, pushed the songs into new affective realms; sometimes, the mood became more sinister, sometimes more triumphant.
The result is music that is heavier and more sonically daring than Westerman’s previous releases. The album’s opening drum salvo sets the tone: Krivchenia’s percussion on “Give” sounds hyper-real rather than natural, blown-out and compressed, integrating sounds of smashed glass, cracking wood, and what sounds almost like fists on flesh. The primary musical dialogue in many of these songs is between the wall of percussion and Westerman’s vocals—rawer and drier in the mix than ever before, reinforced by bursts of rich three-or-four-part vocal harmonies. These two primary elements are perhaps appropriate considering the music Westerman was listening to obsessively during this time: Can’s rhythmically dense 1973 masterpiece Future Days and unaccompanied Renaissance and Baroque choral music.
Despite the industrial-grade instrumentation, the arrangements are always sensitive to the songwriting, tracing the subtle shift in modalities as if sketching a narrative arc. The band zooms in and pares down during moments of self-inquiry (the tuneful and plaintive “Help Didn’t Help at All”) and autobiography (“CSI: Petralona,” with a mix of dreamy acoustic guitar and hand percussion redolent of ‘90s Joni Mitchell). The dynamics surge to a fever pitch for high-concept micro-dramas (the fiery “I, Catullus,” a meditation on toxic modes of masculine expression through romantic art) and exorcisms of sociological frustration (“Idol: Re-RUN,” a meditation on false prophets and poisonous internet echo chambers). The album culminates with Westerman’s most full-fledged rock song to date: “Pilot Was a Dancer,” which imagines a post-apocalyptic world where the protagonist is the last person left alive.
Though they often feel foreboding, the songs on An Inbuilt Fault never trend toward solipsism or bleakly moralism. Westerman abstracts his specific points of inspiration into invented scenes featuring multiple characters (sometimes distinguished with vocal effects or alternate vocal ranges) and allows his most broad-strokes universal sentiments to dominate the foreground (“I needed help/Help didn’t help at all/I only have myself/Now even that feels so ephemeral.”) Even the most despondent songs function in the way that the most enduring music about depression and grief does: the delivery and arrangement feel like a triumph over sadness. The result is Westerman’s own mini-epic about being in crisis, stitched together from torn song fragments and spontaneous moments of musical exorcism, which combine to tell a story that takes clearer shape with repeated listens. The central imagery in “Take” seems to evoke the feeling and structure of the record, as well as the frame of mind which inspired it: “A tripped switch/The chewed wires connecting/Everyone has a ceiling/Every feeling is a wire.”