(photo: Ginger Fierstein)
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
For all the ways in which Oakland is evolving, It’s incredible that people can maintain enthusiasm for Lake Merritt.
On a recent temperate Wednesday — the first one after a rash of blazing heat, the first one where people are beginning to cautiously venture outdoors — Hamilton Ulmer of Makeunder is lounging in the shade on the banks of the lake, near the pergola. Other grateful sunbathers dot the grassy area next to Grand. Birds — we’re not far from the chain of islands established as a safe shelter for local populations of waterfowl — squawk unknowingly in the distance as he discusses their demise. “The summers get hotter, the fire season gets longer, and pretty soon it’s going to be a permanent fire season.”
He thinks a lot about that.
Ulmer isn’t unfamiliar with aligning earthly beauty to an existential outlook — loss is his muse. His body of work, perhaps famously, has dealt exclusively with trauma, death, and personal grief. But for Pale Cicada, his first full-length released last week, he’s moving on to a sister subject of death — ancestry, evolution, and where he, specifically, comes from. And that’s infinitely harder to talk about.
You might know the story of Makeunder by now — the great chain of personal tragedy that birthed Ulmer’s first two records, canonized in glowing NPR coverage as monuments to loss and grief. His first two albums, Radiate, Satellite and Great Headless Blank, were experimental affairs. Not too experimental, but the middle and bottom layers of songs like “What a Lovely Bandsaw!” and Great Headless Blank’s title track were complex works, requiring the listener’s full attention. “It was definitely something that merited study. So the kind of people that were really into it and loved it were the kind of people that loved studying.”
But in the process of making those, he saw how music worked, as it has for so many others, as therapy. “I saw…music as a way of examining unexamined parts of my past…that’s how