By Daniel Paiz
Aesop Rock’s Spirit World Field Guide feels like two different ideas at once. First, it’s a guide for supernatural, astral plane travel. Second, it more so feels like notes from a journey already completed as opposed to a current trip of sorts. It’s hard to reach that conclusion until the end of the album, which is likely an intended consequence.
Fair warning though, this album does clock in at 21 tracks charting just past the hour mark. Nothing drags on this album though, as each song adds to the overall journey; certain tracks feel like checkpoints or snapshots. It’s a refreshing reminder that few emcees out today are as descriptive and clever as Aesop Rock.
A brief explanation of sorts
To backtrack a bit, it is important to know some basic definitions before diving any further. I am not familiar at all with the astral plane or spirit world(s); so the following definitions might help a bit. The spirit world is an external environment, a place where spirits who are good or evil manifest. Independent of the natural world you and I know, apparently both the natural and spirit world have constant crossover experiences.
The astral plane is a place of existence consisting of “a world of celestial spheres.” In other words, it’s the culmination of all spirit worlds together in one place; it also has been considered “the entirety of spirit existence.” The astral plane also seems to be considered a place of existence right before birth and right before death; it often is viewed as what some people consider “Heaven.”
This is all pretty heavy stuff and keeping these big concepts in the back of your mind somewhat adds to the album. Again, by no means do I know anything more about these things outside of what I just researched. Having these ideas in your mind while listening adds a little extra to the album.
An introduction to the Spirit World Field Guide
Eight tracks stand out to this listener in particular. They all have to do with transition, reflection, and earning progress along the journey. In some ways it’s hard to describe what’s going on in a track because of the lyrical density Rock injects into these rhymes. Certain lines in a few of the tracks are what led me to come up with my conclusions.
A good starting point would be The Gates. This track doubles as an introduction to the album and to the astral journey the narrator is embarking on. The beat opens up the possibility that the astral plane is being viewed almost like a video game and this is the loading screen. Other track titles include Button Masher and Crystal Sword, adding video games as another possible vehicle of thought.
The above video is a good introduction into both the field guide as well as the spirit world. Visuals shown offer a glimpse of what to expect, which is basically anything. After a few more tracks of colorful depictions and slight paranoia a track entitled Gauze grabs my attention.
This track is peak Aesop Rock, because it batters your ears with clever rhymes over an enveloping sound. The trick on this and many an Aesop track is to to avoid getting caught on a line that pulls you in and gets you stuck on it. Inevitably this happens, as this one kept replaying in my head as the song continued on:
“why am I here if it isn’t effectively cutting the hellions out of me?” -Aesop Rock, Gauze
This line is the embodiment of what Rock does. The Rhymesayers representative delivers casual lines that nonchalantly drop ideas one ponders long after the track ends. Part existential, part reflecting on one’s journey along the astral plane, this is just one of many reflective lines on the album.
Descriptive Gems on the album
It would be a lot of fun going track by track and breaking down what’s going on. However, that would take tens of thousands of words to do so (as my five pages of notes for 21 tracks would attest). Our focus instead highlights a few tracks that embody the concepts laid out at the start of the tape. Coveralls is one of several definitive tracks on the field guide.
A headnodic intro leads us into a plethora of vibrant imagery all around the listener. This track feels like interaction between the spirit world and the natural world. It’s almost as if the expected astral trip has detoured between the two realms. Perhaps it’s a rest stop or a save screen for the journey. One of my favorite lines on the album is:
“Most of my visitors request I’m tied to a chair, I wear the skin of my detractors maybe try not to stare” -Aesop Rock, Coveralls
The casualness of this imagery is yet another example of clever simplicity. Like who out there is saying their detractors/critics/haters might want to exercise caution because he’ll wear their skin? I struggle to think of other emcees stating it this way. If this track isn’t clever enough, then the two most descriptive songs of the album follow Coveralls: Jumping Coffin and Holy Waterfall.
The quotable lines in Jumping Coffin is reminiscent of TV sitcoms from the 1990s. There could be an article on just the track alone, but a few highlights in particular caught my eye:
“Sugar in his coffee like a séance in the TV room” … “Passing through the old Manhattan, ectoplasm everywhere” -Aesop Rock, Jumping Coffin
Making a daily ritual sound important, almost reverent is not what you hear in a verse. Making coffee and later walking down the street should not sound this eventful. Perhaps I’m focusing too much on the creative decisions to describe monotonous occurrences as grander than they are; however it’s a fresh perspective. There’s a reason why hardly anyone comes to mind as an adequate comparison to this artist. But wait, there’s more.
Holy Waterfall is a masterclass in writing descriptive rhymes. A few ear-catching ones include:
I been ignoring any semblance of relatable earth, I got a homie from the region who can name every bird, And tell you what it is to wake up with a tank in the yard, type of shit to make you question what your days even are ... “Y’all keep not being shit, all I do is chomp at the bit” -Aesop Rock, Holy Waterfall
Existential crises abounds all over these lines, but that’s part of the astral journey the protagonist is still on. That’s what makes this entire track a merciless parade of descriptors contributing to a needed washing of one’s mind. The more I listen to these tracks, the more I feel like I’m on a similar journey, which might be the point.
Entering the home stretch
Three tracks after the above trilogy of songs wraps things up for our purposes: Sleeper Car, Kodokushi and The Four Winds (which is appropriately track 21 of 21). Sleeper Car and Kodokushi are effectively checkpoints in the journey, albeit ones that are hinting the end is near.
Sleeper Car has both elements of movement like travel in it, as well as continuing the journey along the astral plane. The orchestral opening has a dash of Halloween-ness making it feel like the listener should take a moment. A moment that involves some level of trepidation-turned brash devil-may-care attitude follows in my preferred line:
“I almost died on a scooter, I almost died on a boat, I figure fuck it baby come as you are and die as you go” -Aesop Rock, Sleeper Car
This track sounds like a moment of reflection. That works. A few tracks later that reflection then take a bit of a turn.
Kodokushi is that point in a movie where the protagonist reflects on everywhere they’ve gone and debates the merit of it. This track also feels like how the astral plane might depict death, as the title of the track means lonely death in Japanese. There’s some aggression alongside the reflective tone of the track, especially with a line like:
“I could turn ribcages into windchimes, you don’t wanna engage” -Aesop Rock, Kodokusi
Since I’m still continuing that concept from the opening track, this song feels like a warning of experience from a weathered traveler. Making wrong decisions is rarely the goal but avoiding doing so appears more imperative here. Perhaps that’s due to the title of the track meaning “lonely death.” In Japan there is a problem of people dying alone and not being found for awhile. That dying alone might be even worse when thinking about the experience in the spirit world.
The Four Winds and the Final Verdict
The closing track The Four Winds does what a good finale track is supposed to: it closes the project while teasing what’s next. The problem is, it’s hard to think of what comes next after a thorough stroll across realms. There’s plenty of directions to go as Rock raps
“Everyday I wake up in a different carcass.”
Out of mind and body experiences go with the territory of witnessing the spirit world. These experiences also show the traveler each element that factors into who they are. Perhaps the traveler (presumably Aesop himself) has mastered seeing the astral plane and the natural world at the same time. Better yet, the traveler hasn’t mastered this at all but instead recognizes when the two meet.
Either way, this album has plenty to sift through. Not because it’s long or because Aesop’s word selection is pretty much unrivaled in the music world. But because the essence of the field guide is simply that: your experience is one of an untold number of experiences. Learn from it.