Pre-pandemic, the listening party was a common event in the music industry, occasions for record label marketing departments to gather a bunch of influencers, journalists, and DJs in a physical place to hear an artist’s new album. The idea behind these events is to build hype without necessarily risking a leak (which can happen sending out MP3s) while presenting the music in a controlled environment that might influence how it’s perceived. As you can probably imagine, they mostly end up as opportunities to schmooze.
Two Half Words aims to make the experience virtual, not by gathering a bunch of industry professionals for a giant catch-up on Zoom but by offering a video game-like experience that anyone can access so long as they’ve got a computer and internet connection. Clicking on this link will whisk you away to Two Half Words, both the name of Canadian artist Sam Tudor’s latest album, and a darkened digital space within which you can listen to it.
It begins with the sound of a creaking wooden door before an assembly of shapes and squiggles fade into view. The controls should be familiar to anyone who’s played a first-person exploration game: WASD to walk, shift to run, mouse to look, and right click to zoom. Move a few steps forward and you’ll see a floating image, the album cover itself; then, a little further ahead, the number one hovering in an entrance. Walk through and the familiar crackle of vinyl slowly whirs—the music begins.
Tudor’s folk-inflected songs are lovely, embellished with jazz, baroque, aned electronic touches you might ordinarily find on an indie record from the late noughties. When each of these tracks play in their own separate rooms, the impressionistic swirls change color, throbbing in time to the music alongside what look like hand-drawn stars. Photographs mostly taken by Tudor dissolve in and out of the space, illustrating various inspirations behind the album. My favorite room is for a track called “Perennials” which features a series of portraits, the kind you might find in a dusty family photo album. At the risk of sounding a little too sentimental, it’s nice just looking at the faces of people who clearly mean a lot to the artist.
Like the music itself, this virtual space designed by SCRN PRNT’s Neilson Koerner-Safrata is soft and analogue-feeling. There’s been a raft of virtual music events during the pandemic, from Travis Scott’s appearance in Fortnite to the bizarre Post Malone hook-up with the Pokémon franchise. These both leaned into a notably digital aesthetic—shiny, crunchy, noisy—but Two Half Words almost seems to go out of its way to make you forget that it was made on and for computers. Alongside the personal photos, this helps make it feel intimate, another way into the artist’s world alongside the music.
It’s for precisely this reason that I could imagine something similar being utilized by artists such as Beyoncé (hear me out), figures who exact strict, nearly infamous authority over their public image and branding. These kinds of virtual experiences, when they’re not designed to purely dazzle, are effective ways to tell different stories. They can be used to signal closeness without necessarily having to get close to another human being (which some micro-managing artists might think this is a perfect way to engage with either the media or their fanbase). I don’t think there’s anything cynical in Tudor and Koerner-Sfrata’s intentions behind this project but it does make me think (yet again) about the implications of this seemingly inevitable slide towards the digital that the pandemic seems to have hastened.
Still, for me at least, projects such as this have also offered an intriguing and enjoyably distracting dimension to a mostly wretched 12 months. What I like best about Two Half Words is its modest, autobiographical approach to worldbuilding. So many games transport us to faraway, fictional places, but fewer take us inside the mind of a person. That’s what Tudor and Koerner-Safrata’s effort feels like—album promo, sure, but a welcome change of pace and perspective.
You can play Two Half Wordshere.