When I say that Eating the Sea, the 1993 debut from Soulwhirlingsomewhere (aka, Arizona’s Michael Plaster), was a life-changing album, I’m not being hyperbolic. As is the case with other landmark albums like Slowdive’s Just for a Day, Mortal’s Fathom, Low’s I Could Live in Hope, Starflyer 59’s Silver, and Pedro the Lion’s It’s Hard to Find a Friend, it’s possible to divide my life into pre-Eating the Sea and post-Eating the Sea eras.
The demarcation point between those two eras is the summer of 1995. I’d just finished my freshman year of college, a year characterized by real growth in my aesthetic and artistic preferences — preferences that have since survived the ensuing years. Much of that growth was driven by my discovery of the nascent World Wide Web, which opened up entire realms of new music to discover.
One such discovery was Sam Rosenthal’s Projekt label (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year). The Projekt catalog’s darkly romantic and atmospheric music (termed “darkwave” by Rosenthal) instantly appealed to me as someone who (1) possessed a melancholy and nostalgia-prone disposition, (2) spent an inordinate amount of time moping through various unrequited crushes, and (3) dabbled in the goth scene, both online and offline. Having discovering 4AD Records just a few years prior via Dead Can Dance’s Into the Labyrinth and This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End in Tears, Projekt was a natural progression, musically and aesthetically. (As a burgeoning graphic designer, I also fell head-over-heels for the stylish artwork that graced Projekt’s releases.)
The only problem? Finding Projekt albums in Nebraska record stores. This was years before Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify came along with their seemingly infinite catalogs. If you wanted an album, and especially one from a smaller indie label, you had to spend time flipping through the bins at your local record store, during which you might get distracted by a clever title or some striking artwork and end up going down a whole ‘nother rabbit hole. If you couldn’t find what you were looking for, then you had to fork over the extra money for a special order, which might take weeks to arrive. And of course, if and when you actually got the album, there was no way to preview it to verify that it met your expectations. Each and every purchase was a leap of faith. (These were the golden days, in other words.)
Imagine my delight, then, when I actually found a copy of Eating the Sea while perusing the “Imports” section at the Homer’s Music in Omaha’s Old Market. My friends had no idea why I was suddenly so excited, but I couldn’t wait to get home and crack open the jewel case; I felt like I’d just discovered my own musical pearl of great price. Little did I know, however, what lay in store for me, or the effect that Eating the Sea would have on me for years to come.
Every music obsessive, I think, is on a continual lookout for another one of those albums. That is, an album that appears at just the right time to fill a previously unknown void in your life. An album that says things to you that you never knew you needed to hear. An album that helps life make just a little more sense than it did before you started listening. An album that opens you up to new ways of thinking about music, life, and existence.
As soon as I pressed “Play,” I knew Eating the Sea was one of those albums. The languid and wistful synth tones on “One of These Days Some Eyes Will Be Opened” immediately set the mood: listening to Eating the Sea would be a supremely personal experience unlike any other album I owned, one best-suited for solitary late-night listening sessions.
Indeed, this is how I spent much of 1995 and even 1996: sitting alone in my one-bedroom apartment in the middle of the night, the lights turned down low and Eating the Sea’s melancholy ambience filling the room as both soundtrack and source of comfort for a frankly difficult period in my life. (To this day, I know of only a handful of ambient albums that contain soundscapes as introspective and evocative as Eating the Sea’s, including Pieter Nooten and Michael Brook’s Sleeps with the Fishes — an influence on Plaster, if memory serves — and more recently, Poemme’s Soft Ice and Demen’s Nektyr.)
I often perused the CD’s liner notes while listening; the sleeve artwork, filled with Susan Jennings’ surreal, aquatic photography, was a perfect visual accompaniment for Michael Plaster’s lush sounds. And of course, I memorized his overwrought lyrics which perfectly captured my own emotional and romantic state of mind at the time. And when I say “overwrought,” I mean it. Plaster wrote as if he was the only person who had ever experienced heartbreak and longing, and he sought to communicate those feelings as completely and thoroughly as possible to the rest of us.
On “Not Breathing,” he sings about a “sea of abandoned things” that “churns me into aloneness” and concludes that “As long as I can float within each sigh/I’ll still stay alive in the life/Of my aloneness.”
“You’ll Tear Me Away from You” finds Plaster imploring his lover to “Cup your precious hands together once again/And dip them into/The shimmering waters of my soul” before asking “How can I feel better when despair and delight share the same lips?” Later, Plaster sighs “These days, hope rides an empty shell” on “Wish” — arguably Eating the Sea’s most ethereal song — and ultimately muses that “Dreams hand in frailty/And glimmer out of reach/The threads of imagination/Thinner than air.”
It was “Landed,” however, that hit hardest, with Plaster bemoaning a lost opportunity for love while questioning his own ability to express himself. As someone who experienced several deeply felt and unfulfilled crushes during the high school and college years, Plaster perfectly reflected my own experiences and frustrations when he sang “Because no one ever wanted/A memory to chain them/To a word left unfulfilled” or asked “Did my heart/Ever brеak the bounds of this stupid body/And soar for what it was meant?”
I can tell that some of you are rolling your eyes at those lyrics right now, and honestly? I get it. If I’d encountered Eating the Sea in a different period of my life, I might be right there alongside you. But prior to Eating the Sea, I’d rarely heard lyrics so raw, honest, and intimate — and it struck a chord somewhere deep inside, forging a musical connection that, to this day, few albums have made.
What makes it all work is the earnestness in both Plaster’s lyrics and his soothing tenor, as well as the manner in which Plaster’s music perfectly match his lyrical sentiments. When he sighs away on “Wish,” his synthesizers sigh right alongside with him. And on “Landed,” the music is appropriately murky and impenetrable, the sound of a dark and lonely apartment at two in the morning — which makes the angelic choir heard faintly in the song’s opening seconds all the more affecting and bittersweet, a memory of something beautiful that’s now lost and gone forever.
Nearly three decades have passed since I found that copy of Eating the Sea in Homer’s, and time has done little to diminish the album’s effect on me. Whenever I cue it up, I’m transported back to my third-story apartment’s darkened living room, and to the intense emotions associated with that often-lonely time, when the outside world faded away and it was just me and Soulwhirlingsomewhere’s music.
Such staying power is due to the album’s confessional sincerity. You won’t find a single trace of irony or sarcasm in any one of its fifty-nine minutes, nor is there a moment when Plaster unexpectedly winks at the listener to reveal that he actually doesn’t mean every single word, every single breathy sigh, every single wash of wistful ambience. The songs on Eating the Sea possess a gem-like clarity, in which Plaster’s emotions are distilled down to their purest essence.
Plaster would release three more Soulwhirlingsomewhere albums: Everyone Will Eventually Leave You (1995), Hope Was (1998), and Please Sennd Help (2001), as well as 1997’s Pyewackit EP. (Germany’s Kalinkaland Records also released a compilation titled The Great Barrier in 2004.) While these other releases still possess the same confessional style as Eating the Sea, the music is less purely ambient as Plaster incorporated more guitars and programmed beats. Even with its atmospherics, a song like Please Sennd Help’s “Nani” feels almost poppy compared to Eating the Sea’s moody soundscapes.
A fifth Soulwhirlingsomewhere album, tentatively titled Almost, was in the works for years. But after numerous delays (including thieves breaking into his house and stealing his computer), Plaster announced in 2017 that he was shutting down Soulwhirlingsomewhere in order to “close that chapter of my life.” A wise decision, probably; one can be so confessional for only so long before risking a dive into solipsism and self-indulgence. (See Mark Kozelek.) Aside from Soulwhirlingsomewhere, Plaster’s been involved in several other projects, including guest vocals on Black Tape for a Blue Girl’s To Touch the Milky Way and releasing a single under the Yttriphie moniker.
But even if Plaster had called it quits immediately after releasing Eating the Sea, his debut is striking enough that it would’ve solidified Soulwhirlingsomewhere’s place in the darkwave pantheon all on its own. Thirty years after its release, it remains as haunting, affecting, and transporting as ever — and I’m certain that will remain the case for the next thirty years, and beyond.