Angelo De Augustine
Toil and Trouble
The fourth solo album from Angelo De Augustine, Toil and Trouble exists according to its own quixotic logic, inhabiting a psychic landscape as sublimely mystifying as a fever dream or fairy tale. In creating such an all-enveloping body of work, the Southern California-based artist spent nearly three years working alone and exploring the vast expanse of his imagination. “This album came from thinking about the madness of the world right now and how overwhelming that can be,” says De Augustine. “I used a sort of counter-world as a guide to try to gain some understanding of what’s actually going on here—I had to take myself out of reality in order to try to understand reality.” At turns bewitching and devastating and ineffably lovely, the result is the most visionary work yet from a singular songwriter, revealing his profound capacity to alchemize pain into extraordinary beauty.
Arriving on the heels of 2021’s A Beginner’s Mind—a critically acclaimed collaboration with Sufjan Stevens—Toil and Trouble marks De Augustine’s first solo effort since his breakthrough album Tomb (produced by Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman). In a return to the self-contained approach of his 2015 debut Spirals of Silence and 2017’s Swim Inside the Moon, De Augustine wrote, arranged, recorded, produced, and mixed Toil and Trouble, shaping the album’s ornately detailed sound by performing on 27 different instruments (including such oddities as a xylophone made of glass). In the midst of that highly experimental process, he endured an ephemeral but nightmarish period of otherworldly sensations and supernatural visions—an experience that briefly disrupted the album’s creation but in the end helped to enrich Toil and Trouble’s immense emotional depth.
Although an abundance of original and mythical characters populate the songs of Toil and Trouble—Peter Pan, Miss Havisham, Christopher Robin, to name a few—the album opens on the quiet sorrow of “Home Town,” a despairing yet dreamlike track born from De Augustine’s reflection on a tragic mass shooting that occurred near his former residence. “It felt like if something like that could happen in this little town, then nowhere was safe,” he says. “And that feeling of not being safe anywhere is what led me to start thinking about a lot of themes on this record.” Next, on “The Ballad of Betty and Barney Hill,” De Augustine mines inspiration from one of the stranger chapters of human history: the account of a rural New Hampshire couple who claimed to have been abducted by aliens in the early 1960s. “It’s a bizarre story, and of course nobody knows if it’s true, but it’s probably the UFO abduction story that’s got the most credibility,” De Augustine notes. Spotlighting the unbridled ingenuity of his sound design, “The Ballad of Betty and Barney Hill” unfolds in unearthly textures achieved in part through his use of elegantly warped field recordings of ambient noises like cars, frogs, and teapots, as well as the extremely rare DG-1 Stepp Guitar synthesizer (an item invented in the 1980s by a British instrument designer named Stephen Randall). “It is a mysterious instrument unlike anything I have encountered,” says De Augustine, who adds that “there are entire worlds waiting to be discovered within it.”
All throughout Toil and Trouble, De Augustine magnifies the mesmeric effect of his songwriting by uncovering new and wholly unexpected possibilities within the album’s vast array of instruments, many of which he’d never worked with before. “Memory Palace,” for instance, interweaves lush Mellotron tones and delicately layered percussion with the bell-like timbres of a Mustel celeste (a type of small piano invented by Auguste Mustel in 1886). “I loved that instrument since I was a kid and went to see The Nutcracker, and found out that the magical sound you hear in ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ is the celeste and the Glockenspiel piano playing together,” De Augustine explains. “The celeste I have now was made by Auguste Mustel, who gave Tchaikovsky the celeste he used to compose parts of The Nutcracker ballet, so that feels very special to me.” Meanwhile, on “Another Universe,” a Japanese guitar synthesizer known as the Unisynth lends a gloriously cosmic quality to a track whose lyrics echo the intense longing at the heart of Toil and Trouble (e.g., “If I created my own world/Minds would be open and unfurled…The galaxy would be a guide for love”).
Another piece laced with the celeste’s sweetly luminous tones, Toil and Trouble’s title track closes the album with a heavy-hearted reverie reflected in the cover art: a painting created by Ghanaian artist Daniel Anum Jasper, depicting an anthropomorphized and wild-eyed cauldron surrounded by test tubes and spell books and brightly blooming opium poppies. “After three years of creating everything myself, I’d gotten to a place of feeling stuck and not knowing how to finish this record—but the moment when I got the cover art from Daniel, I knew the way out,” De Augustine recalls.
While De Augustine refers to the making of Toil and Trouble as a painful and emotionally demanding process, each track embodies the kind of rarefied grace that can only come from a certain purity of expression. “For me songwriting has always felt like something that I need to do, and even if I don’t understand why, I completely trust that feeling,” he says. And by fully surrendering to his instincts, De Augustine ultimately arrived at a selection of songs whose transportive power is both immediate and indelible. “When I made the album I was so disheartened by the world that I needed to use an alternate world to get away from it,” he says. “But even though it’s a very personal record, it also feels more broad than that—like something bigger than just me and my story.”