I was exposed to Slint’s Spiderland in the Internet age, unaware of its contextual power or influence. I’m fairly sure it appeared on a list of the ‘Best Albums of the 1990s,’ presumably from Pitchfork, and it just became something else to consume culturally, in some conscious attempt to expand my knowledge of music. What’s striking about it, though, is even amongst a torrent1 of new-to-me albums, Spiderland stood out, it sounded like nothing else, with an almost languidly singular voice. It helps too, that, in addition to the compelling musical content, the lyrics were abstract yet engaging – outside of every second song on The Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas, the opening track to Spiderland, “Breadcrumb Trail”, is one of the best ‘story songs’ I have ever heard. A minimalist and mysterious tale of human connection, it sets the tone for the entire album, slightly off-kilter, almost alien yet faintly familiar, stripped of so many hallmarks of genre. Lance Bangs’ documentary Breadcrumb Trail is an exploration of the events that led to the creation of that album, a refreshingly restrained behind-the-scenes affair that is naturally endearing.
Initially positioning the film as a personal recollection, complete with Maddin-lite narration, Bangs walks us through the mystique surrounding Slint’s second album through old video footage he took in the early 1990s, venturing through Kentucky.2 When we move through to the talking heads element of the documentary, this sense of intimate connection continues; Bangs has crafted a humanist rock doc, devoid of any overbearing visual or aural recreation of that specific music scene. The creation of Spiderland and, in fact, the history of the band, is treated so matter-of-factly that the film is devoid of pretension. While it does, by virtue of its concept, argue for the importance of Spiderland to modern music.
“This is the sound of a band who totally has their shit together” – Steve Albini
The film is as much about the band as a whole as it is a character study of Slint drummer Britt Walford, who is routinely described as this mythic talent, making for a great contrast when we cut to his very nonchalant interviews in his house, a child’s drawing always in the top right corner of the frame. Walford appears as a perpetual teenager, his boyish appearance hardly changed from the front cover of Spiderland and the some very funny stories of his childish pranks. In fact, one of the funniest moments in the film is Walford and later, his parents, discussing how the name Slint came about, which is so random and plain and once more creates this almost-brilliant juxtaposition between myth and reality.
A lot of the film is about the divide between the audience and the creators of art. Whilst Spiderland remains as potent as ever and wildly influential, the story of its creation is essentially normative – a group of friends became a band, they rehearsed for a long time, they made a record they weren’t entirely happy with, they broke up. This simplicity of the actual narrative is oddly satisfying, as it doesn’t entirely tear down the illusion audiences have built up about the band. Despite Brian McMahan, the band’s vocalist, divulging how he just came up with stories in his car and improvised some of the lines in the songs, the power of each song is not dimmed. LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy appears in the film as one of the talking heads and his ability to move through both the myth and reality of the band is engaging and amusing. For example, he talks about the great contrast between the perception of Spiderland as these intelligent and complex songs and the way in which the band members of Slint themselves lacked any of that hifalutin sense of self, embodying this divide between audience and artist.
The way Bangs edits in the songs on the record is likewise impressive and engaging, cutting from people discussing minor errors or background elements in the songs, then playing that exact portion, enlightening the viewer as to production aspects whilst still hitting them with the instant recognition of the Spiderland tracks.
Not all of the film is cohesive, however. We open on a Hunter S. Thompson quote about Kentucky and multiple people in the film remark on the Kentucky scene but this is mostly left unexplored from a contextual standpoint; whilst there is focus on the bands of that era, we hardly see why Slint were a product of their State, per se. The film also meanders as it nears its end, the post-Spiderland section seeming overlong and the final scene of the film coming off as contrived emotional epiphany by virtue of its placement in the film.
However, these are minor quibbles. Breadcrumb Trail is an impressive achievement in music documentary by virtue of its restraint. It never strives to hit a wider audience nor is it overly insular. It does exactly what it sets out to do – explore the lives of those who made an affecting album – and it remains interesting and engaging throughout, not solely as a result of the music, but because it lets the people involved tell their own story.
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