50 Years of Music: 1991 – Slint - "Breadcrumb Trail"

KEXP 50
06/08/2022
Jasmine Albertson

As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, Jasmine Albertson looks back at the beautiful bleakness of Slint's 1991 epic "Breadcrumb Trail." Read or listen to the piece below.


Ah, 1991. Bet you thought I was going to write about Nevermind huh?

Sure, it would be relevant to write a piece about how 1991 was the year Nirvana and Pearl Jam put both grunge and Seattle on the map, but do we really need another one of those? Perhaps it’s because of growing up in the Northwest that the grunge conversation feels not just played out but utterly boring. I’m more fascinated in what was happening in other parts of the world at the moment right before every record exec spent the rest of the ‘90s hyper-fixated on trying to capture the “Seattle sound” only to sanitize whatever that was.

Over in Louisville, Kentucky, a small but mighty post-hardcore scene had been bubbling since the early ‘80s, when a band of kids just barely in their teens caused a riptide as Squirrel Bait. Furiously dense and tightly melodic, the band quickly received praise from outlets like Spin, the Village Voice, and the New York Times, with Husker Du’s Bob Mould even saying of Squirrel Bait’s eponymous 1985 debut “it’s as good as anything my band has done.”

Shortly before the dissolution of Squirrel Bait, guitarist Brian McMahan reunited with the band’s former drummer Britt Walford to form a new band, alongside Ethan Buckler (later replaced by Todd Brashear) and David Pajo. After trying on a couple different names, it was settled that they’d christen themselves after Walford’s pet fish Slint.

With their debut record, Tweez, produced by Steve Albini, the Nirvana connection is made but it’s their second, and final, album Spiderland that remains their seminal work. Unlike the heavy barrage of dense riffs and punk rhythms of Squirrel Bait, Slint’s expertise was space. Each song on Spiderland slowly unfolds at a glacial pace, asking patience of its listener. Short stories are sing-spoken like menacing manifestos anchored by twinkling guitars and sparsely syncopated drums with catharsis rarely reached. 

Opening track “Breadcrumb Trail” is an interesting case study because of the disparity between its bleak tone and the story McMahan is actually relaying. Without paying too much attention to the lyrics, the haunting instrumentation coupled with McMahan’s glum mutterings that trick the brain into believing a very gloomy tale is being told. In reality, the narrator goes on a roller coaster ride with a fortune teller at a carnival. Personally, I couldn’t imagine anything more light and fun.

The deeper you get into the record, the more the lyrical content matches up with the tone, with loneliness, desperation, and despair as main themes, but I think it’s a wise decision to dip listeners’ toes into Spiderland’s murky waters. Pressing play is like traveling from technicolor Oz to a black-and-white Kansas. Bleak and devoid of color. 

But the beauty’s in the bleakness. To love Spiderland is to not only accept the dark shadows but to run towards them and embrace them like a friend, if only for a little less than forty minutes. And there’s a massive number of artists who did just that, embracing and repurposing Slint’s ambling yet deliberate guitar work, angular melodies, and unique use of space to make them the seminal precursor for a lengthy list of post-rock, black metal, and math rock bands to follow.  

But Nevermind’s good too.

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